News & Views

Volunteers of the Month: March 2024


Seven years ago, Aaron Finestone and Sheilah McLean Louis approached HIAS Pennsylvania and offered to provide pro bono representation to an asylum-seeking client.  Aaron and Sheilah met when they worked in the same office and have been friends for more than 15 years.  Neither are immigration attorneys by training. They were drawn to the work for different reasons.  Aaron wanted to honor his great-grandparents and grandparents who came to the United States from Czarist Russia around 1900.  It is likely a HIAS national affiliate helped his family. Sheilah, who has a degree in foreign affairs and served as a law clerk for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review during law school, wanted to contribute her services at a time of great humanitarian need for refugees.  HIAS PA asked if they would be willing to work together to represent a client seeking asylum and they agreed.  They were also assisted over the course of the representation by Spanish interpreter Shari Goldman Gottlieb.

HIAS Pennsylvania is always in need of attorneys who will represent asylum seekers and volunteer interpreters. On average, HIAS PA receives dozens of calls from potential asylum applicants in need of representation each month and out of those calls, the organization is able to represent only a handful of clients in-house. The others are turned away for lack of capacity, unless a pro bono attorney can be found.  Aaron and Sheilah helped HIAS PA turn away one less asylum-seeking client.

Aaron and Sheilah’s clients are AB, a woman from Honduras, and her three children.  AB fled Honduras in 2016 after being brutally assaulted and sexually abused by her husband. This man had also attempted to sexually assault their teenage daughter.  AB was and remains terrified that if she were to return to Honduras, this man would find her and further harm both her and her daughter.  When AB entered the United States she had no lawful immigration status, so she was put into removal (deportation) proceedings. Only if she obtains asylum will she be able to live and work safely and legally in the United States indefinitely.

Over the course of their seven-year pro bono relationship, Aaron and Sheilah dug in to learn the intricacies of asylum law. They researched legal standards and identified relevant case law.  They studied the culture of Honduras, where women have few rights and fewer legal protections.  They developed a close personal relationship with AB and her children which enabled the clients to open up to them about the trauma they have experienced.  This information was used to draft client declarations and a 30-page legal brief detailing why AB and her children merited protection in the United States.  Aaron and Sheilah also helped AB and her daughter obtain work authorization and stable employment, among other things.

After several scheduling delays, Aaron and Sheilah were set to present AB’s claim for asylum to an Immigration Judge in Philadelphia in January 2024.  Approximately one month before the hearing, the government attorney offered AB a “deal.” The government would terminate its removal (deportation) proceedings against AB if she agreed to forgo the Judge’s hearing of her asylum application.  Aaron and Sheilah and AB carefully considered the government’s “deal”, but ultimately, AB decided to decline the offer because she wanted a judge to consider (and grant) her application for asylum. This, she knew, was the only way she and her children could feel they were ultimately going to be safe in the United States.

Unfortunately, the government unilaterally asked the Judge to terminate the removal proceedings and the Judge agreed, over Aaron and Sheilah’s written legal objections and brief.   This means that now, after waiting for seven years, AB will not get to have the Judge consider the asylum application that Aaron and Sheilah worked so hard to prepare.  Instead, AB must file a new application with a different government agency and wait an unspecified amount of time (likely many more years) to have the application heard in a different forum. Then, depending on the outcome, she may return to an immigration court many years down the road. 

While this is not the exact outcome that Aaron or Sheilah or AB were looking for, it is definitely still a pro bono win. Aaron and Sheilah have already helped AB file her new asylum application with the government agency.  AB’s  legal materials are well prepared for eventual consideration by that agency.  Her attorneys also ensured that AB and her children have authorization to continue to work legally in the United States for at least five more years. 

Though the resolution may be much slower than anyone would like, Aaron and Sheilah have put AB in the best position they possibly could and now it is only a matter of waiting for AB to have her chance to prove that she should obtain the relief she seeks.  As Aaron wrote to HIAS PA recently, he looks forward to celebrating with AB and her children at their naturalization ceremony someday in the future. HIAS PA is exceedingly grateful to Aaron and Sheilah for their many years of legal service to AB and her children on their journey to immigration status and safety.

For more information about HIAS PA’s pro bono program, contact our Pro Bono Coordinator Jessica Daly.