Every week, the woman from Guatemala would bring her children. First, she would settle them into chairs to play with their toys. Then the woman, a small-business owner in her home country, would walk into the office, close the door and sit down to review some of the worst days of her life.
Over the course of several months, under the supervision of Sabi Ardalan and Deborah Anker, Gianna Borroto and another student attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program interviewed the woman, piecing together an affidavit; researching the country conditions; working on the legal argument; and representing the woman, finally, in her successful asylum hearing.
Borroto carried all these legal skills and experiences with her into a career at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. But there was something else she carried.
“The way Sabi interacts with clients, her human approach to working with clients, I think that’s stayed with me throughout all my work—especially my work with kids,” Borroto said.
Borroto had always wanted to work in human rights; the only question was where. Once she joined HIRC, the work seemed like a natural fit. Born in Cuba and raised mostly in Miami, Borroto was familiar with the experience of leaving her home country at a young age, like so many others in that multicultural city.
At NIJC, she worked mostly with unaccompanied minors—visiting shelters, giving Know Your Rights presentations, representing young people in their claims, often from start to finish.
Many of the young people have no family in the U.S., and no social support. For years, Borroto helped connect them with therapy. She signed them up for school. She saw them through the height of the Trump administration’s 2018 zero tolerance policy, which included family separations.
“Sometimes, the little kids seemed OK on the surface, but we would hear that they were wetting their beds or showing trauma in other ways,” said Borroto. “Speaking with the mothers was even harder because they could tell us how much they were suffering.”
One boy stands out from that time—an 11-year-old released from custody and referred to Borroto with only a few days to prepare for his asylum hearing. Together, on that tight timeline, they teased out the story of his life and prepared him for his interview with the Asylum Office. He won asylum a few weeks later.
Borroto still remembers the day they delivered that good news to the judge in the boy’s removal proceedings. There her client stood, a little boy wearing a suit.
“And people started clapping—the attorneys, everyone in the courtroom,” she said.
The work was meaningful and fulfilling. But a couple of years ago, something shifted. That’s when Borroto joined NIJC’s Federal Litigation Project.
“Under this administration, seeing all the policy changes and how they were directly impacting my clients, I felt like I needed to do more to create change on a broader level,” she said.
Last month she was at trial with a federal class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for transferring unaccompanied minors who reach their 18th birthdays to ICE adult detention facilities without considering less restrictive placements.
She’s also part of lawsuits challenging a November 2018 ban on access to asylum for anyone who enters the United States without being authorized to enter at an official port of entry, and the more recent third country transit asylum ban.
The work is tougher than ever. In response, NIJC has increased training on self-care and organized yoga sessions. Borroto has also found a creative outlet to distract her: learning to play guitar.
And when all else fails, there’s the relief of the holiday season, when so many of the young people Borroto represented reach out to let her know they’re in school; they’re at work; they’re getting married. They’re OK.
View additional profiles from our story, Prepared for the Challenge, including:
Brianna Rennix ’18, Staff Attorney, Dilley Pro Bono Project, Dilley, Texas: “Policies that are words in the news impact our work within 24 hours and alter what our clients have to prove.”
Mark Fleming ’97, Partner and Vice Chair, Appellate and Supreme Court Litigation Practice, WilmerHale, Boston: “The client deserves—and should be given—a direct role,” he said. “The result is better for it.”
Geehyun Sussan Lee ’15, Appellate Counsel, Center for Appellate Litigation, New York City: Lee remembers a time, not too long ago, when the courthouse was a safe space for her clients.