Jennifer Nissen always knew her work mattered.
“You see someone get their green card, get their citizenship – it’s people lives, and it makes a difference,” said Nissen, an immigration attorney in Milwaukee.
Then, she went to a detention center for women and children in Artesia, N.M.
“This is life or death. These are amazing women, poor women, some of them nursing mothers, who have made this trek with their children. … And if they go back, it’s a critical situation. You feel like you’re really using your profession to give back,” said Nissen, treasurer and former secretary with the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which organized pro bono efforts in Artesia.
Nissen wasn’t even sure she was qualified to help when she saw an email from the AILA asking lawyers to take one-week assignments at the center, which closed last December.
“I had never filed a motion for a bond hearing for the court – ever,” said Nissen, whose practice focused primarily on employment-based immigration matters before her time in Artesia.
But, despite her largely transactional background and her rusty Spanish – a second language she learned years ago studying in Guatemala – Nissen, a former social worker, knew she had to try.
So last October she left the comfort of regular business hours – and her three daughters, ages 4, 7 and 9 – and went to Artesia, temporary home for an estimated 600 women and children seeking asylum from domestic violence and gang warfare in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“The goal is to get them released on bond so they can be with family while they’re waiting on their asylum hearings,” Nissen said.
For Nissen, and nearly every other attorney at Artesia, that meant relying not only on support staff on-site, but also attorneys and paralegals back home. Fellow attorney Kelley Chenhalls said she and others at the firm were happy to provide that help, even after Nissen returned home, working remotely to help with bond hearings for some of the nearly 2,000 asylum-seekers at a new detention center in Dilley, Texas.
“Jenny always did pro bono work before, but this was different. When she went to Artesia, she was deeply affected. I’ve just never seen her that way,” Chenhalls said. “A lot of people come back feeling really sad, and they write an article or something. But Jenny continued doing work. We both manage a full caseload. We’re both working moms. But she figured it out. She set her own time aside, all on her own. It’s inspirational.”