On the road with a transient immigrant rights lawyer

Lawyer Melanie Gleason is traveling the West, offering legal advice pro bono.

  • Attorney Melanie Gleason is driving her Smartcar around the West to do legal work for the public good.

    Michael Fagans

Melanie Gleason put her Smartcar in drive and watched as her Oakland, California, apartment disappeared in the rearview mirror. It was July 1, 2015: the first day of her new life as a traveling immigration lawyer, working pro bono across the country for the next year and a half. She had left most of her belongings behind and had no official itinerary or place to sleep. “There was definitely a fear this wouldn’t work out,” she says. “But I felt deeply aligned with what I was about to do.”

Ever since that day, Gleason, a 34-year-old second-generation immigrant, has been roaming the West’s highways, representing undocumented immigrants and refugees in rural communities and detention centers for weeks to months at a time.

Each Tuesday, she blogs about her experiences and what she’s learned about the justice system. And this July, she’ll open a virtual law office, focusing primarily on family and youth immigration issues and using online video to represent rural residents — especially in states like New Mexico and Arizona — who can’t travel for hours to visit an attorney.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are detained in federal centers and county jails, both on the U.S.-Mexico border and far from it. Gleason is determined to draw attention to the corrupt immigration detention center system and fight for immigrant rights. “I would think if most people learned what’s actually going on with asylum seekers,” she says, “they would be pretty shocked.”

Gleason has always been keenly aware of race and immigration issues. Growing up, she saw her mother face discrimination as a Thai immigrant in white suburban Massachusetts. At 18, she went to the University of Texas at Austin to study political communication, and then taught middle school special education in South Central Los Angeles — one of the most segregated, isolated areas in the country. “It was eye-opening,” she says. “I was doing something individually, but the larger systemic issue was overwhelming.”

So she became involved with community organizing and legislative campaigns. While working full-time for MoveOn.org — which organizes online campaigns for progressive issues — she attended law school part-time at Golden Gate University. Thoughtfully observant and fiercely dedicated to her ideas, Gleason had no desire to pursue a traditional career. She graduated in 2014 with a specialization in public interest law, and began planning this adventure, crowdfunding it through online contributions.

The journey began in California’s Central Valley, where Gleason represented undocumented farmworkers in housing claims. During the first six months, her work took her from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, where she assisted the town’s sole attorney with tribal law, to Tacoma, Washington, and the West Coast’s largest immigrant detention center. One of the detainees Gleason represented there was a young woman who was only a year old when she came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos. She was in rehab following a couple of nonviolent drug offenses when someone reported her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Though she had no relatives left in Laos, she faced possible deportation. Gleason couldn’t stay long enough to see her through the trial, but the experience stuck with her and she decided to focus more intently on immigration issues. “The facts just didn’t add up,” she says.

Heading south to Santa Fe, Gleason worked with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which helps immigrant youth and families find schools, jobs and supportive communities. “She shared a vision with me of creating better communities (for immigrants), with legal services being a piece of that but not the complete solution,” says director Allegra Love. Unlike many lawyers who get caught up in casework and rarely think about the values and philosophies of law, says Love, Gleason is “taking a huge chunk of time to listen and reflect while working.”

Writing helps Gleason cope with the challenges she faces. She is both blunt and thoughtful in her blogs, describing making new friends through Couchsurfing.com, a website that helps people find places to crash for the night; trying to get her little car up snowy mountain roads; and the most memorable moments in the hundreds of cases she has handled.

When this project concludes at the end of 2016, she plans to focus full-time on her virtual office, which she says is also a campaign to connect rural immigrants with proper legal resources. “I really see it as an intersection between my community organizing and law background,” Gleason says. 

At times, Gleason feels overwhelmed by the number of immigrants who need legal help. The work can be frustrating, she says. But when she thinks of the many invisible but extraordinary people she has met, she rolls up her sleeping bag and hits the road again. “These injustices fly under the radar,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of watchful eyes looking at this.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is an HCN editorial intern. 

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