It’s almost Christmas, and an email recently went around about ordering Christmas cards to send to clients. The prototype we received via email reads “Feliz Año Nuevo!” on the cover, with little red birds in snow-covered trees. On the inside, it says “De Parte de Southern Poverty Law Center, les deseamos felices fiestas y un feliz año nuevo!” (“From the Southern Poverty Law Center, we wish you happy holidays and a happy new year!”). While I get the idea, I couldn’t help but think this rang a little false; these are people who are in detention, and, if they’re still there on Christmas, will likely be there through the new year. These are people who are, in the case of Stewart, inevitably very far away from their families, and likely will be having anything but a happy holiday.
So the question arises: how do I address special occasions my detained clients? Do I just not mention it? Do I acknowledge the occasion, but with the caveat that being in detention for [your birthday, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the birth of your child, etc.] sucks? Do I celebrate it like I would if the person weren’t detained? Thus far, my responses have fallen somewhere between these options, but I have yet to feel like I navigated the conversation gracefully.
I talked about the content of the cards briefly with Monica who, as part of her many-faceted role as project coordinator, is also in charge of things like ordering Christmas cards. We agreed that we had some complex feelings, and she explained as much to the administrator taking orders. Instead, she suggested sending the cards to the thirty or so of our clients who have been released since we opened in April of 2017.
Henri, the lead attorney at the Folkston site, then replied to Monica’s email and made an excellent point that I have been thinking about a lot. “Most of our clients are religious,” she wrote, “and for many this time of year is the most important to them.” Henri then went on to explain that she will often include a personal note in the cards, something to the effect of “God bless you,” being sure to keep the tone hopeful. I now feel stupid for having forgotten about the religious component of Christmas (I’m sure Knights of Columbus were aiming their “Keep Christ in Christmas” right at me) Christmas for me has always been about being with my family, eating, exchanging gifts, doing a puzzle, sitting by the fire. But for most of the world (including, I should add, a large segment of my own extended family) Christmas is a religious high holiday. So of course Henri is right. Hope is important, and hard to find from inside a detention center, and if a holiday card can help with that even a little bit, I’m all for it.
Speaking of the holidays, we recently had the SPLC Holiday Party in Montgomery, AL, where SPLC is headquartered. Prior to the party, Matt and I, along with a maybe 75 other lawyers from all across the many branches of SPLC, attended a two-day deposition training led by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. The training included lectures on “the funnel method”, theory testing and gaining admissions, using exhibits, and even an ethics credit about ethical issues related to preparing clients or witnesses for deposition. However, the large majority of the two days was spent in small groups (divided up based on when you graduated from law school) practicing each of the skills discussed in the lectures. We had a fake case complete with a case file full of declarations, court filings, and other relevant documents. I was assigned to represent the self-declared “office Lothario” defendant in an employment discrimination case, which was a tough change of pace from my usual plaintiff’s employment practice. During each breakout session, we had a new “actor” (SPLC staff members) playing the plaintiff and the defendant. Every actor did a great job playing a different archetypal deponent: the evader, the monosyllabic answerer, the rambler, the blatant liar. The instructors also rotated, and each gave astute, detailed feedback for each practice round.
All told, it was an intensive, but hugely instructive two days, and I am so so thankful to have been allowed to participate. I am not technically an SPLC employee, so they certainly didn’t have to include me. I also won’t be deposing anyone in my current role as an SPLC pseudo-employee, since depositions aren’t really part of immigration law, so my developing these skills also doesn’t benefit SPLC as an organization. And yet, I was readily provided a spot in the class and a room at the hotel to boot, and I truly feel like I am a better lawyer for having taken this class. So, thanks, SPLC! And to anyone who is thinking about taking or sponsoring a NITA course, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After all the mock lawyering was done on Friday night, we partied! There was a band, and a raffle, and all the amazing weirdos from SIFI all in one place, dancing the night away. I don’t know how I keep getting so lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful people, but that the fact of that remarkable good fortune isn’t wasted on me.