By Claire Zillman
Reed Smith pro bono counsel Jayne Fleming had just returned from a community service trip to Guatemala when she heard the news of the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12. She spent the following days contacting human rights colleagues, asking if they would accompany her to Haiti to provide legal assistance to the earthquake’s survivors.
Initially, Fleming didn’t know what her mission to Haiti would entail. Then, on January 18 Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced she would grant humanitarian parole to individuals with compelling need and to orphans who’d been in the process of getting adopted before the quake.
By March 8, Fleming was on a plane heading to Port-au-Prince (she raised $7,000 for the mission, and spent $3,500 of her own money). Over the next eight days, Fleming, along with two other lawyers and three doctors from Stanford School of Medicine, interviewed Haitians who might qualify for humanitarian parole. Those granted parole would be permitted to stay in the U.S. under the care of a financial sponsor for one year.
Fleming, who is based in Reed Smith’s San Francisco office, recounts her time in Haiti and explains what other lawyers can do to help.
How did you prepare for your trip?
We knew we were going to sleep in tents, so we packed camping gear along with the legal documents we needed. The biggest challenge was preparing psychologically. We needed to be professional and effective while working in an environment that can be emotionally overwhelming. I consciously avoided TV coverage of Haiti because I really wanted to stay focused on individuals.
When did you first see signs of destruction?
Flying into Port-au-Prince, our plane had to circle the airport six times. You could see the destruction and the tent cities that had gone up around the city.
What did you see once you landed?
On my first day, I took a tour of Port-au-Prince. I told my driver I felt completely idiotic because the only words coming out of my mouth were “Wow” and “Oh my gosh.” It was like going to one of those science fiction end-of-the-world movies.
Did you see any signs of a clean-up effort?
It was like a ghost town except for Haitians who were wandering the streets. There were buildings that had pancaked, floor on top of floor. A lot of Haitians were trying to dig tunnels through the rubble to recover family members and offer them proper burials.
Was there any sign of government aid?
No. What I saw were a lot of Haitians wandering the streets clearing the rubble by hand. The 400 or so people we talked to said they hadn’t gotten food for more than a month. They were sleeping in the streets.
How did you identify Haitians who might qualify for humanitarian parole?
There are community leaders who work in Port-au-Prince as social justice advocates and they identified people who should come to us for interviews.
How does someone qualify for humanitarian parole?
They have to be living in extreme poverty and have an additional compelling need, such as widows raising children, people with severe medical needs that could not be treated in Haiti, children who had lost their families, and elders who were living in the streets.
How did you collect this information from people?
Through an interpreter, I asked how they were getting food, how they were getting water, where were they sleeping, and whether they felt secure. Then I would ask about their medical issues, if their family members had survived, and whether they had family in the U.S.
If other lawyers want to go to Haiti, what kind of training would they need?
You need a diverse team to handle the situation in Haiti. A lawyer who’s worked extensively with survivors of gender-based violence is key. You would also want a lawyer who’s previously worked with orphans or displaced children.
What’s the biggest legal need in Haiti right now?
Other teams could replicate our project to identify applicants for humanitarian parole. Lawyers are also needed to document the social conditions in Haiti because their human rights are being violated every day they go without food, shelter, water, and security.
Is Reed Smith doing any work in Haiti on a larger scale?
This didn’t start as a Reed Smith project, but our team left with 50 humanitarian parole applications and I have 20 of those, who automatically became Reed Smith clients. So we’ll prepare declarations for them and process those applications. Reed Smith also donated $75,000 to Haiti and has signed up to file temporary protected status applications for Haitians in the U.S. so they can stay in the U.S. for a year without getting deported.
Was there anything you took away from your trip? One final thought?
The world has abandoned Haiti.
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