Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer

Because U.S. immigration law was in the background of the Sanctuary Movement case in which I was involved in the mid-1980’s,[1] I sought to obtain some knowledge of this area of law by taking a training course in asylum law from a Minneapolis NGO–Advocates for Human Rights.[2]

I learned that there is a legitimate claim for asylum under U.S. and international law if an alien establishes that he or she is a “refugee,” i.e., he or she has been persecuted or has a “well-founded fear of [future] persecution [in his or her home country] on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”[3]

I then volunteered to be a pro bono (no legal fees) lawyer for Jorge, a young Salvadoran asylum seeker, and started to learn about his country. He had participated in demonstrations against his government at the national university in San Salvador and feared he would be persecuted for his political opinions by the government if he returned to his country. With the aid of an experienced immigration lawyer, I tried his case before an immigration judge who denied his application, which was typical for the time. We immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and under the law at that time he had legal permission to remain and work in the U.S. while the appeal was pending.

In 1988 I volunteered to take another pro bono Salvadoran asylum case. My client had a middle class background. He had held a position in the Salvadoran government and had publicly protested about corruption in her military forces. As a consequence, he was imprisoned and severely tortured in El Salvador, and one of the reasons he came to Minnesota was to receive treatment at our Center for the Treatment of Victims of Torture.[4] He had been persecuted, and he and members of his family feared future persecution by the Salvadoran military for their political opinions. He and his family members subsequently were granted asylum.

I was now on my way to becoming a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Thereafter I was a lawyer for successful asylum applicants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. (Later, in 2002, I became an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, where I taught refugee and asylum law as part of an international human rights course.)

The asylum work enabled me to get to know, and to help, interesting, brave people. I also learned a lot about conditions in these countries. In the process, I was weaned away from accepting what our government said about conditions in other countries at face value and from avoiding making my own judgments about those questions because there was no way that I could know as much as our government knew. As an asylum lawyer I had to investigate conditions in these other countries and come to my own conclusions on such issues and then advocate for individuals as to why they had well-founded fears of persecution (death, physical harm, imprisonment) due to their political opinions or other grounds protected by refugee law.

Moreover, the Sanctuary Movement case and my pro bono asylum work liberated me from the narrow vision and focus of a practicing lawyer concentrating on the laborious development of detailed factual records and legal analysis and arguments in the succession of individual cases. In this prior life I had little time and inclination to be concerned about, or interested in, broader concepts of law or the plight of people around the world who lack a trustworthy legal system to protect them from assassinations, “disappearances,” torture or even mere injustice. To the extent I thought about such things at all, I regarded international human rights as touchy-feely mush that did not qualify for the important “real world” things that corporate lawyers like myself were concerned about.

I also was liberated from the notion that was fostered by the life of a corporate litigator in our secular society that churches and religious people rarely had major impact on our lives in the U.S.

As a result, I often refer to this experience as El Salvador’s liberation of an American lawyer.[5]


[1]  See Post: The Sanctuary Movement Case (May 22, 2011).

[2]  Advocates for Human Rights, http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/. See Post: Two Women “Shakers” Rock Minneapolis Dinner (May 20, 2011).

[3]  E.g., David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process, ch. 15 (4th ed. 2009); Convention [Treaty] Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 137; Protocol of 1967 Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 U.N.T.S. 267; U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home; Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (a)(42).

[4]  Center for Victims of Torture, http://www.cvt.org/index.php.

[5]  Krohnke, And Then There Was Light, Minnesota’s Journal of Law & Politics, at 10 (Jan. 1992); Krohnke, The Liberation of a Corporate Lawyer, LXXXI Am. Oxonian 146 (1994).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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