Goodwin Partner dedicates pro bono hours to helping immigrant and refugee children find safety in the U.S.
Elaine Herrmann Blais was surprised to learn that she would receive the Thurgood Marshall Award at the Boston Bar Association’s Law Day Dinner on May 15th. The annual award recognizes attorneys in private practice in Greater Boston for their extraordinary efforts in enhancing the human dignity of others by providing legal services to Massachusetts’s low income population.
But if Blais was surprised by the honor, no one else was. The Goodwin partner and head of litigation in the firm’s Boston office has had an active pro bono practice since 2008, when she began representing adults seeking asylum through both the PAIR Project and Immigration Equality. And for the last five years, she has represented unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings through Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
“From the start, the immigration work was rewarding and challenging,” said Blais. “The biggest challenge was developing the relationship with client so that they would trust you; because the more you can draw their stories out the better your work can be for them. But people don’t walk into your office and tell you their most horrible experiences on day one.”
In 2010, Goodwin began accepting cases from KIND. Those cases, Blais remembers, grabbed her attention.
“The cases with children just really pulled me in. They are underprivileged, and they are dealing with the repercussions of their experiences in their home countries, which can lead to behavior that undercuts their ability to succeed here. So, while you’re handling the legal argument that can help them, at the same time you’re acting as a positive role model who can influence them well in the future.”
One child in particular stands out for Blais. A nine-year old girl had been living with her grandmother in El Salvador; her parents had fled to the U.S. when their lives were threatened for standing up to a local gang. Fearing that the child would become the target in her parents’ absence, she made her way to the U.S. as well. With a loving home waiting for her, Blais was determined to win on her behalf.
“We all fell in love with this girl,” said Blais. “We all thought that if we lost her case we would take turns hiding her in our own homes, because there was no way we were going to send her back to El Salvador.”
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Blais and her team were successful in arguing that, because the child was being targeted as a result of her family’s brave stance against the gang, she was eligible for asylum. Blais is now working with the family on her green card application.
Blais credits Goodwin with creating an environment that is supportive of pro bono work. Currently, Blais is one of many Goodwin lawyers representing the cities of Chelsea and Lawrence in a legal challenge to President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration.
“When this opportunity arose, leadership at the firm said ‘this is important; this is kind of work that we as lawyers with privilege should be doing.’ There is a real emphasis on the importance of pro bono. We have partners chairing our pro bono committee who are really dedicated, and our associates get full credit for their pro bono work, which is really helpful because associates can do the work they care about without worrying that they won’t make their hours.”
Blais encourages this participation among associates, and often acts as a mentor. “Where I am in my career, 22 years out, and leading litigation in Boston as a partner, I feel that my obligation is to give support so that as many associates can work on these cases as they want. Which works out well, because when a message comes in from KIND telling us that six more children need representation, it’s really hard to say no.”
Blais will accept the Thurgood Marshall Award from BBA President Carol A. Starkey at the Law Day Dinner on Monday, May 15th. For details on the event, please click here.