Immigration Justice Campaign is an initiative of American Immigration Council, American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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Debbie Cooper

July 18, 2023 | STORIES

Debbie Cooper is an attorney who has been volunteering with the Immigration Justice Campaign for over two years. Her interest in asylum work originated from her close relationship with her grandmother, who came to the United States as a refugee from an area that is now part of Ukraine.

In 2006, she began volunteering with a group that visits people in immigration detention several times a month to offer emotional support. “Every time,” she says, “I would arrive there at the windowless concrete building, identical to the vast cargo warehouses surrounding it, and have to go through a couple of heavy locked doors and a metal detector to enter a visiting room that resembled the worst of what I knew only from TV as a prison, where we talked to the detained people in their prison uniforms on phones through glass partitions.”

As she got to know a couple of the people she was visiting, she found herself wishing that she could use her skills as a lawyer to work with them on their cases. But without experience in immigration law, she knew she would need help. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find it.

“No one would work with me without big law firm resources, and although I had taken lots of immigration law trainings, I had no experience and needed guidance and supervision to properly do that work.”

Debbie ended up connecting those two people to a law firm where they were able to find pro bono representation. But the idea of offering her own services as a pro bono attorney stuck with her. When the pandemic started and a lot of work moved online, she found a training with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and became connected with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network and the Immigration Justice Campaign. With that, Debbie found the support and mentorship she needed to be able to provide pro bono representation in the immigration legal system.

Her time as a pro bono attorney working in the detention system has given her new insights into its cruelty. Debbie says, “I’ve been surprised by ICE’s unaccountable discretion in parole cases, and infuriated by their frequent heartlessness and deception in the way they respond—or don’t—to the humanity of my clients.”

Her experience has also reinforced her belief in the importance of representation for everyone who is incarcerated by ICE. “Having a lawyer greatly increases the chances of successful release for people in detention,” she says. “Without a lawyer, it is almost impossible for someone to assert their rights and get justice. There are nowhere near enough lawyers for people in detention. The need is immense, and every lawyer should take a few hours of their time and do this.”

“I have not found a good way to explain my feelings about any of this to any of my clients,” says Debbie. “There is no good way to explain why immigration detention exists in a supposedly democratic, free, welcoming country. They all express surprise and dismay about it, and I have no good answer, other than to agree, and tell them that we’re fighting to change it.”

Headshot of Debbie Cooper

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