Attorney shares stories of her work representing refugees

Arlene J.M. Grant
Arlene J.M. Grant is the speaker at the National Refugee Shabbat program hosted by Beit Tikvah. (Courtesy of Arlene J.M. Grant)

Arlene J.M. Grant, an artist, humanitarian activist and attorney, will give a talk on her work representing refugees at a virtual National Refugee Shabbat program.

The program, scheduled for March 12, will be hosted by Congregation Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Roland Park.

Grant, a resident of Baltimore’s Patterson Park neighborhood and Avodah chair at Beit Tikvah, plans to spend much of the event speaking about the type of work she does and the experiences of the clients she represents, she said.

Grant first became interested in working with refugees early last year. She contacted the American Civil Liberties Union in February of 2020 for information on what needed to be done. A few months later, in April, Grant spoke with a rabbi about how much need there was, leading to Grant’s decision to begin taking refugees as clients. Soon afterward, the American Bar Association put out a call for attorneys willing to work on the issue, and Grant received training from both them and the American Immigration Council.

Grant’s clients have included refugees from Honduras, Ecuador, Cuba and Cameroon, she said.

Her client from Cameroon, whom she identified as NBK, had been suspected by the government of supporting an opposition political movement. He was jailed and beaten due to those allegations. At one point, Grant said, he jumped from a moving vehicle to escape what he believed was his execution, while government soldiers shot at him with intent to kill. After spending three weeks in hiding, NBK was taken in by a farmer and then smuggled outside of the country. Grant’s client eventually made his way to Ecuador and from there to the United States, Grant said. The Mexican government attempted to present NBK legally to U.S. authorities in February of 2020, at which point he was taken into detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement set his bail at $7,500, which Grant was able to acquire through fundraising. He is currently seeking asylum while staying in Maryland.

NBK’s father is also in danger from the Cameroonian government, Grant noted.

Grant’s client from Cuba, MCR, went on a mission to Ecuador, defected to Ecuador and afterward had her Cuban citizenship revoked, Grant said. This left MCR legally stateless, as Ecuador was denying her citizenship or status. Facing a number of different health issues, she came to the U.S. border seeking assistance and was subsequently detained. After scrambling to get her out by virtue of her medical condition, Grant was able to secure her release from detention. MCR is currently staying in Florida with her sister.

The nuanced and complex nature of immigration law creates challenges, Grant explained, calling it hardly straightforward.

At the same time, the inauguration of a new president has come with a greater sense of willingness to receive immigrants, Grant said. While she still hears stories of people not being allowed entry into the country, “it is far better than it was prior to Jan. 20,” she said.

One of the major challenges to this type of work is the lack of funding in representing refugees, Grant said, particularly when compared to what she could be making if working for a client with the means to provide generous compensation.

“The difficulty has been, primarily, holding a promise to help these people without any compensation whatsoever and making sacrifices to thousands and thousands of dollars,” Grant said. “But I know that I made the right choice.”

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