Attorney Kaycie Rupp knew from a young age that she wanted to be an attorney.
“I knew that immigration law was going to be a part of my practice in some facet or another,” Ms. Rupp said. “I make sure that I can carve out time for that because it's a) something that I feel like we are obligated to do as attorneys, and b) it's something that I very much enjoy.”
Most of the time, Ms. Rupp is a corporate lawyer working on mergers and acquisitions for Kirkland & Ellis LLP, but she holds immigration work as a high personal and professional priority. She volunteers as a pro bono attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), which includes devoting time to new pro bono outreach in her position on NIJC’s Junior Leadership Board.
“I think that it is a balancing act with everything that we do,” Ms. Rupp said. “It can be a challenge, finding time to do your billable work and your non-billable work.”
Time also plays a role in another of the challenges Ms. Rupp faces as a pro bono immigration attorney. Her first case, which involved getting a client’s U visa adjusted (that is, helping an individual who has a U visa, which is a special visa for witnesses or victims who work with police in the investigation and prosecution of a crime, apply for a green card when they become eligible), has been pending for more than four years. Between mixups at the court — lost paperwork and other bureaucratic snafus — and the glacial pace of many cases in the under-resourced and backlogged immigration adjudication system, the client is still waiting for the adjustment. The long-term nature of this case has also meant that Ms. Rupp has been able to see all the different ways that community comes together for NIJC clients.
“It has been really nice getting to know her and her family, and seeing her kids grow up,” Ms. Rupp said. “We've assisted in different parts of their lives: there were some health issues with her family and we connected her with someone at NIJC who helped with insurance questions and state aid questions. One of her kids is now applying to colleges, so we helped them go through that process as well, and saw a little of what it's like to apply to colleges as an undocumented immigrant. We've spent a lot of time chatting and getting to know one another.”
With all the filings complete, Ms. Rupp is hoping for a ruling sometime in the next six to eight months.
“Right now it's just playing the waiting game for so many of these things,” Ms. Rupp said. “A lot of clients are very anxious—understandably so—to hear back when we send in an application. The waiting game is probably the hardest part because we try to be there for our clients as much as we can, but having to tell them ‘No, we've got six more months, or three more months, or two more months,’ is probably the toughest part.”
In addition to the individual cases Ms. Rupp has taken on, she also enjoys participating in the day-long clinics NIJC hosts to help young immigrants renew their temporary protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as Know Your Rights presentations for those who live under threat of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She says that working on a variety of different cases allows her to fit her pro bono workload into an already-packed schedule. But she realizes that time isn’t the only factor that might stop an attorney from volunteering.
“I think there's this perception that you won’t know how to do something or, especially if you're a corporate attorney, that you might not have time or you might not have the litigation skills that a litigator might,” Ms. Rupp said. “But with all of the training, NIJC makes it very easy for you to step in and be an expert. They make you an expert. All the infrastructure is there to make sure that the process is efficient and you're also doing it correctly.”
Ultimately, for Ms. Rupp, the real reason to get involved in pro bono work is very simple:
“To your clients, you are the expert, and you are helping them make hopefully huge, positive changes in their lives.”
Alejandra Oliva is a communications coordinator at NIJC.