When it comes to taking on an immigration case, an in-house legal department may not have the same resources at its disposal as a law firm would. But that didn’t stop Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts from taking on an innovative pro bono project that would help young undocumented immigrants in Greater Boston.
Assistant General Counsel Esty R. Lobovits proposed the program, a partnership with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), in early 2017. Since then, fifteen staff members in the company’s Law Department have collaborated with colleagues across the organization to represent six unaccompanied children in their deportation proceedings. With mentorship and training from KIND attorneys, Lobovits co-leads the initiative with Assistant General Counsel Brandon Clippinger.
An “unaccompanied child” refers to a minor who entered the country illegally and without a parent or legal guardian. Most of the children that KIND works with are intercepted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border, at which point they are detained. The next step is for federal immigration officials to reunite the child with a relative currently living in the United States who is able to provide for the child’s basic needs. The process of identifying such a relative can become complicated if the child’s next of kin is undocumented as well.
Once the child is released, they are officially going through deportation proceedings. Lobovits, her colleagues, and their partners at KIND work to prove their clients meet the criteria to stay in the United States legally and pursue a path to citizenship.
Most commonly, that means applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). To qualify, the client must be under 18, must have entered the country without a parent or legal guardian, and must be a victim of abandonment, abuse or neglect in his or her home country. Another route is for the child to apply for asylum in the United States.
“It’s a lengthy process – one that starts out in state court, goes on to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proceedings, and ends up in federal immigration court. We have KIND mentors for the cases, who can answer questions, review a document, and act as a general resource. But we are preparing all the documents and directly representing the kids in court,” Lobovits said.
Because the majority of the children KIND works with are from Central America, thoroughly preparing these cases requires English-Spanish translation. So Lobovits and her colleagues have turned to their colleagues in AZULatinx, Blue Cross Blue Shield’s employee resource group promoting diversity and inclusion for Latino/Latina employees.
“Many of our colleagues in AZULatinx are immigrants themselves or have family members that are immigrants from these countries, so they felt a close personal connection to these kids, their families and their struggle,” Lobovits said.
In the Law Department, nine lawyers, and six paralegals and administrative staff make up the five case teams that are representing six children in their proceedings. Several of these cases are currently in Probate & Family Court, the first step in a process that could take years, Lobovits said.
“Working with KIND has been a great experience. Our clients have overcome incredibly challenging circumstances to get to where they are today, and their situation remains precarious. This work feels so meaningful because it has the potential to help our clients achieve a future that is safer, more stable, and filled with more opportunity than they would otherwise have,” Clippinger said.
In addition to the pro bono work of Blue Cross’s legal team which Clippinger coordinates, employees company-wide are encouraged to participate in public service projects through Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Corporate Citizenship program. The numerous options for giving back include a service day, youth mentoring programs, a sabbatical program for BCBS employees to work at a nonprofit, and training to help prepare employees to serve on nonprofit boards.
“It’s really wonderful as a lawyer to be able to have an opportunity to impact a kid’s life,” Lobovits said. “It wouldn’t really be possible for these kids to have opportunities in their home countries because of what they have dealt with, and it’s especially meaningful to be able to give back to my community and improve the lives of children living right here in Greater Boston.”