Laura Lunn, Managing Attorney for Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network
MEET LAURA LUNN
Laura Lunn has always been passionate about working with asylee and refugee populations which led her to pursue a law degree. Now she is leading the charge for immigrant rights in her role as Managing Attorney for the Detention Program at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network in Denver, Colorado.
Before she started working at RMIAN, she served as the interim Managing Attorney for the CARA Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Residential Facility, Associate Attorney at Lichter Immigration, PC, in Denver, where she provided direct representation to clients obtaining immigration benefits through family-based petitions, DACA, asylum, U-Visas, VAWA, and Cancellation of Removal. Before moving to Colorado, she worked as an Associate Attorney at Immigration Law Group, PC, in Portland, Oregon. Following law school, Laura clerked as an Attorney Advisor for the El Paso Immigration Courts through the U.S. Attorney General’s Honors Program, providing legal analysis to six judges on both detained and non-detained dockets.
GET TO KNOW ROCKY MOUNTAIN IMMIGRANT ADVOCACY NETWORK
RMIAN is a nonprofit organization that serves low-income men, women, and children in immigration proceedings, working to ensure justice for adults in immigration detention and for immigrant children who have suffered from abuse, neglect, or violence.
RMIAN promotes knowledge of legal rights, provides effective representation to ensure due process, works to improve detention conditions, and promotes a more humane immigration system, including alternatives to detention.
In 2000, RMIAN officially became a nonprofit organization although its founding dates back to the early 1990’s when a group of volunteer immigration attorneys banded together in the face of grave injustices they witnessed at the immigration detention center in Aurora, Colorado. These attorneys encountered adults in detention, including long-time lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and others, forced to confront a hostile immigration court without the benefit of legal counsel and without the due process recognized as a cornerstone of our country’s justice system. As a result, this group came together on an ad hoc basis to try to provide free attorneys for the most meritorious cases.
Since 2003, RMIAN has had a daily presence at the immigration detention center in Aurora, Colorado, conducting “know-your-rights” presentations, individual intakes, and self-help workshops to detained individuals who otherwise would never have an opportunity to talk with an attorney interested in protecting their legal rights and best interests.
While working in the detention context, children in immigration legal proceedings throughout Colorado began calling RMIAN’s office for help. Fleeing persecution in their home countries or horrific domestic violence in their own homes, they were eligible for protection under immigration law but unsure how to access it. Seeing another vastly unmet need, RMIAN launched its Children’s Program in 2005 to provide free legal services to immigrant children and to disseminate information regarding immigration issues to professionals working with children in Colorado.
LET’S DO THIS
LDT: What path led you to Denver?
LL: The work that we do is really intense (laughs) and my best reprieve (was this the word you were going for? I didn’t catch it) – Yes. Perfect. is getting outside. I very intentionally moved to a place where I could do that and I also have some family ties here.
LDT: How did you start working with RMIAN?
LL: I became an immigration attorney because I wanted to work with asylee and refugee populations. So I was interested in that and that is what spurred me to go to law school.
Then subsequently, I did various types of immigration work, but my heart always was with all my pro bono cases. When the opportunity arose to work at a nonprofit I jumped at the chance. I feel very honored that I get to do this work and that we’re able to help with these cases for free. People can’t believe that a resource like that exists to help them. That’s pretty incredible. That’s one of the best parts of my job – being able to tell people that I can help and they will never have to pay a single cent.
LDT: What is a typical day in your life?
LL: I usually exercise first thing in the morning – it helps me clear my head for the day. And then I typically have meetings scheduled in the morning. I try to do any office work that I need to do and I frequently head to the detention center in the afternoons.
Inside the detention center, I don’t have access to the internet or cell signal. I try to get as much done as I can before going into the detention center and frequently I’ll go respond to emails in my car quickly if there’s anything urgent. After the detention center, I’ll go back to the office or go home and respond to any emails and case follow up that comes in while I’m offline. The best practice is to update the case notes in the file so everything is accurate and up-to-date.
LDT: What’s the largest threat or concern in the current political environment?
LL: Given the current atmosphere, we’re seeing a large influx of people who have zero criminal history being detained. At this point, the majority of the people being detained by the Department of Homeland Security are asylum seekers. It’s a huge challenge to change some of these norms and recognize there’s really no reason to detain people who are here seeking fear-based relief… to recognize that there are viable alternatives to detaining them and we should not continue to endorse this practice as a community.
LDT: What are some alternatives to the current norm that you would recommend?
LL: There’s a Family Case Management Program that serves as an excellent alternative to detention. I’ve done a lot of family detention work in the past. It was a program started by Obama Administration where family units were then able to have check-ins with ICE after they were released. ICE would help facilitate them understanding their rights and obligations, explained how to get to court and their appointments – basic things like a social worker – so they could understand how to navigate this complex legal system. They had a 99% appearance rate which is remarkable.
This is a clear alternate option that previously existed and was dismantled under the Trump Administration to help people have access to the judicial system without having to have an ankle monitor or spending time in prison. In addition, the cost was significantly lower to maintain than having someone on an ankle monitor or in a detention center.
LDT: What is your rose? Thorn? I.e. what frustrates or challenges you in your work? And what is the most valuable, exciting part?
LL: The best part of my job is getting to meet so many beautiful souls who have come to the United States for various, different reasons and they’re trying to stay here either because they’re afraid to go back to their home countries or they have family here – they have life and roots here.
I will never stop being impressed by the stories people tell me, the ways they can make me laugh, the dignity they bring to a very inhumane system. Getting to meet all these people who I would probably not otherwise have encountered, it continues to be the reason why I do this work.
The thorn is that we do not have the resources to help everybody. Having tough conversations with people who need legal representation and can’t afford to hire an attorney and explaining to them that we don’t have the capacity to provide each and every person with a free attorney. That’s the hardest part of our job. Having those tough conversations with people, their loved ones, and community members.
LDT: What’s the process for determining who qualifies?
LL: We do a presentation every afternoon at the detention center. After that presentation people have the opportunity to meet with us one-on-one so we can vet their case.
We ask a series of questions to screen them to identify any relief from removal or any release options – if there’s a way to get out before the judge hears their full case versus staying detained for a lengthy period of time. We provide people with information so they feel empowered to understand what’s going on with their case. We provide handouts so they have more information. We provide a list of local attorneys they can reach out to see if they can take their cases. That’s the way we discern whether we can take the case through one of our attorneys or a pro bono counsel. We have a robust list of attorneys who take cases for free for people we’ve screened through this program.
LDT: What’s the best way for attorneys to get involved?
LL: If they’re interested in taking a case from RMAIN’s detention program, they should email the detention program pro bono coordinator Jessica Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a pro bono coordinator for our children’s program, Lauren Duke at email@example.com.
LDT: How do you think the needs of your organization are going to change in the next 5 years? 10 years?
LL: I think with expanded enforcement actions, either both affecting people who are then detained or children and family members, that just means more cases that are going to be in front of courts and, in turn, a greater need for attorneys to represent those individuals. That means we will need more volunteer attorneys and we need more capital to have attorneys at our organization who can represent people themselves and in turn, they can serve as mentors to the community of volunteer attorneys.
The fact that Congress continues to appropriate funding to expand bed space in detention facilities for noncitizens just means that more people will be torn away from their families. It’s a huge impediment to people being able to have access to counsel if they’re being detained. It’s a lot more expensive to represent someone in a detained setting and those cases move more quickly. I strongly believe that individuals do not truly have access to justice if they do not have an attorney by their side making sure they understand how to best construct their legal claims.
Taking a step back as a community and what we want our elected officials to be prioritizing is incredibly important. We need to make sure we’re voting according to our morals and making sure elected officials are well educated on these issues and put a lot of thought into how to make more affordable humane systems where people can have access to the judicial process without having to be detained.
LDT: If you had more time and resources, where would you like to be able to focus your energies?
LL: Besides trying to get everybody an attorney, I would really like to think more about how we can make structural changes through more policy work and impact litigation. So that instead of helping on a case-by-case basis, we’re able to collect narratives on cases so we can create broader change with whole groups of people.
LDT: What demographic is your audience? Who do you mainly work with?
LL: RMAIN has two legal service programs – one is the detention program. That’s where I work and we also have a children’s program that supports children and their family members in detained cases. So they appear before the court in downtown Denver, whereas our clients all go to court at the Aurora Immigration Court at the detention center.
With the detention program, we serve people as young as 18 and my oldest client was in his 70’s and he was in a wheelchair – so any age range. In terms of the countries that they’re coming from to Aurora, the majority of people detained there are either from Mexico or Central America, but we see people from all around the world including Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Really from all over… it runs the gamut. Sometimes people are stateless which means they don’t have a home country.
Some people are recent arrivals and some people have been here their whole lives. In many cases, people don’t know they’re not US citizens until they are 16 years old and they want to get a driver’s license. Sometimes parents are trying to protect their kids and not have them worry about all of the fears that arise when someone is living in the United States without a lawful immigration status.
In terms of the children’s program, they’re working with kids from all over the world and their family members. Their work focuses on seeking immigration benefits through asylum, U-visas for survivors of violence, T-visas for people who have been trafficked, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – DACA, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases.
LDT: What do you want to do next? What is your next goal or initiative?
LL: I have multiple things. With the outpouring of support we’ve received after the presidential election, a lot of people have started to pay attention to this gaping need that exists.
We’re trying to funnel some of the generous donations we’ve received into our legal services and our social work program. Our social workers work hand in hand with our attorneys so we’re hoping to expand both our legal work and social work to ensure more people have the emotional and logistical support they need as they navigate the legal system.
And then beyond that, I’m trying to think through more creative legal advocacy that we can do to have a more sweeping impact locally.
LDT: What kind of connections are you looking to make or do you need?
LL: One of the huge needs we’ve identified at the detention facility is additional medical support – doctors who are willing to do forensic evaluations, both mental health and physical evaluations. We’ve had an unprecedented number of doctors reach out, but it’s certainly a need for the indefinite future as long as there is a detention center in Aurora.
In terms of our ability to sustain this work… Obviously, financial support is invaluable because that’s how we can create a sustainable work environment for everyone on staff and increase our internal capacity. In terms of our clients, they’re constantly asking for more books – they have to be paperback, they’re not allowed to be hardcover books – in any language. Obviously Spanish and English are the main languages, but folks who speak French, Punjabi, Russian and all kinds of indigenous languages need books as well.
Casa de Paz is another nonprofit that we partner with. It’s an incredible resource for people to have a place to stay immediately after their release from the detention center. They accept clothing, toiletries, etc. and they take backpacks because as people are traveling to where they’re going, it’s useful to have a bag.
Donations are the most valuable to make sure our work is sustainable and we are able to expand our staff to better accommodate the needs of the people we’re trying to serve.
LDT: What do you feel most proud of in your current role?
LL: I’m really proud of how hard our staff works and how much heart they bring to this work every single day. I find it so encouraging that people will put their personal lives on hold to make sure a client gets where they’re going safely, or to make sure the legal filing is in order, appearing the next day… Whatever it may be, our staff goes above and beyond to make sure we are honoring the mission of our organization and serving people – not just providing them with free legal services, but exceptional free legal services.
LDT: How do you maintain work-life balance?
LL: For me, exercise is really important and being outside. I run outside a lot. I rock climb. I hike. I trail run. I do yoga outside at Wash Park. Anytime I’m feeling really stressed, I put on a pair of sneakers and go for a run. It helps me clear my mind and makes me feel like I have more control over the situation so I can go tackle the task at hand and so it doesn’t seem so insurmountable.
Each interview on Let’s Do This features a guest question from a previous collaborator. This question comes from Tony Mason, the Senior Talent Buyer, Promoter & Manager at Lost Lake & Larimer Lounge. Lost Lake is a historic cocktail lounge & live music venue located in the Bluebird Theater District on East Colfax in Denver. Larimer Lounge is located in the heart of RiNo and known for its gritty charm and tastemaker shows.
Tony Mason: What is the most stressful and complicated part of your job?
LL: I think having conversations with people who have endured unspeakable trauma and violence. It’s really hard to be yourself after that.
Everybody just develops different coping mechanisms to engage with this work and the separation it creates so we can go on and live “normal social lives”. But sometimes turning off some of the things that we hear is really difficult – leaving work behind and going to incredible venues like Larimer Lounge and Lost Lake can be challenging. It’s really lovely to have that escapism but sometimes it’s hard to disconnect from the hard things that we hear and the connections we make with each person who shares very intimate details of their lives with us.
LDT: What’s your question for the next interview? What do you want to know?
LL: What is your biggest blunder or an inadvertent accident that actually turned out to advance your work?
LET’S DO THIS! STOP, COLLABORATE & LISTEN
If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more about Laura Lunn & Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, you can connect and follow them using the links below.
Let’s Do This is presenting an “Act Global Stay Local” Fundraiser to benefit the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network on Sunday, August 12th from 12:00 – 4:00 pm at Improper City in RiNo. There will be brunch drinks & snacks, live music & yard games, in addition to a silent auction with proceeds benefiting RMIAN.
More information here: http://actglobalstaylocal.com/
Facebook Event: http://bit.ly/2LSNUbS
Volunteer Sign Up: http://bit.ly/2KcfiwE
Silent Auction Donation Sign Up: http://bit.ly/2v0aNRg