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Pro Bono Spotlight: Refugee and Asylum Cases

Posted By Nick Hansen, Thursday, January 14, 2016

     Refugee resettlement and asylum law are much more complex than one often hears about in the news. These issues are especially relevant in Minnesota, which has traditionally been a welcoming state for migrants. That means there is no shortage of pro bono work for lawyers.

     Luke Olson, an associate at Dorsey & Whitney, wanted to work on a case related to migration issues for his pro bono work. He developed a passion for issues related to resettlement after traveling in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa. He also is deeply involved with global issues at his church, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. 

     Olson connected with The Advocates for Human Rights and was assigned to a case with a Guatemalan woman claiming asylum in the United States. The woman, who spoke no English, was persecuted as a child in her own country due to being Q’anjob’al, an indigenous group. She also faced threats from a gang on a regular basis.

     After six weeks of proceedings, Olson and his team won the case, which permitted the woman to stay in the country. “It’s cool to have a direct impact on somebody’s life like that,” said Olson.

     Minnesota is expected to accept more refugees this year. Sarah Brenes, the program director for the Refugee and Immigration program at the Advocates for Human Rights, said there are ample pro bono opportunities for lawyers to work on asylum cases.  

     Volunteers are expected to attend a training session before signing on to take a case. Brenes interviews potential volunteers to find the best fit for them with the program.

     A lawyer who takes a case has the power to drastically change someone’s life. Many of the clients that the Advocates for Human Rights works with have lived through dire situations. “About half of our clients are torture survivors. Many of them are victims of trauma. All of them are low-income,” said Brenes

     In Olson’s case, he did change his client’s life. “I have no doubt in my mind that if my client didn’t have representation, she wouldn’t be in this country,” said Olson.

     Many of these cases involve stakes not normally faced by many attorneys in their regular work. “That can be a very new thing if you are used to working in a business transaction environment,” said Brenes.

     The pro bono attorneys get to work multiple aspects of the case, which can provide valuable experience for new lawyers, who are supported by staff and consulting attorneys at The Advocates. Brenes said that a lawyer doesn’t need experience in immigration law to help on a case. Olson, who was less than a year out of law school when he accepted the case, got valuable time in the courtroom.

     “It’s great experience. It’s cool to get into the courtroom and learn those skills,” he said. Even though the issue involves high stakes, there is a potential payoff for both attorney and client. “You see this transformation from when they come in as a client to when they’re hopefully told that they are able to be protected here. It’s transformative for the client and the attorney as well,” said Brenes.

      Interested in finding out more about representing asylum seekers? Visit Or contact Sarah Brenes at

     The Advocates for Human Rights is also putting on a model hearing CLE on February 26. Find out more information here. The program is free and attendees receive CLE credits. 

Tags:  Pro Bono 

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