It’s a Monday evening in late August. Jim and Diane Mackie, clinic coordinators for New England Justice For Our Neighbors’ Springfield, Massachusetts clinic, are once again preparing to welcome their immigrant neighbors to their beloved church home. You can hear the chop-chop of the cutting board and the rattling of pots on the stove in the kitchen. The volunteers are preparing the meal. It smells fantastic. More volunteers are sorting out the games and movies the kids will watch while their parents confer with the attorneys.
It’s a scene duplicated in many JFON clinics across the country, but Springfield is unique in one significant way—it operates in partnership with the Central West Justice Center, a non-profit organization which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents of central and western Massachusetts.
Simply put, CWJC supplies the part-time attorneys, the office space, and is responsible for maintaining case files. The Springfield JFON clinic at Trinity United Methodist Church provides the meeting place and volunteers for intake, hospitality, and friendly faces that can help put a nervous client at ease.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership. We can’t imagine running it any other way.”
Diane and Jim Mackie are two people custom-designed to make others feel at ease. Love and welcome seem to pour out of them like balm of Gilead. Both grew up in Springfield and both have attended Trinity UMC all their lives. Diane is an English teacher at an immigrant-rich local high school. Many of the teenagers she meets at the clinic are also students at her school.
Jim rebuilds pianos as a profession and participates in mission trips to Nicaragua as a vocation. “I’m working on my Spanish,” he says, chuckling. Diane points out that, thankfully, they have volunteer interpreters from the community to help them with translation.
The clinic runs on the second and fourth Monday evening of every month. The attorneys see between four – six clients, sometimes more if they have time. Once the attorneys have taken on a case for full representation, they bring the client files back to their offices at CWJC. From that moment on, the immigrant who came to the Springfield clinic looking for legal assistance is a CWJC client.
Come the next second or fourth Monday of the month, there will be an entirely new group of anxious faces, neighbors hoping to find an attorney who will shepherd them through the labyrinth-like trails of U.S. immigration law.
“They know what they are doing and they get the job done.”
Attorneys Hilary Thrasher and Billy Peard are young, super-smart, and deeply committed to helping the most vulnerable members of our society. Hilary has a background in human rights law and experience in asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile cases. Billy specializes in employment law and has represented agricultural and seasonal workers in several states across the country.
Both speak Spanish.
“They’re not intimidating. They aren’t country-club lawyers,” Jim Mackie says when asked to describe Billy and Hilary. “When they introduce themselves, they just use their first names.”
“They are wonderful with the clients,” adds Diane.
Billy and Hilary are equally praising of Jim and Diane for their organizational talents, leadership and the truly welcoming atmosphere they’ve managed to create at Trinity UMC. It’s a real pleasure for the young attorneys to sit down and eat a home-cooked meal with clients and families. CWJC operates as a traditional legal aid office, Billy explains. It doesn’t have the same comfy feel as a church clinic.
“Our clients are the best. Generous, caring, humble, honest people…
We couldn’t hope for better.”
Hilary and Billy are equally enthusiastic about the diversity of people and cases that await them at the Springfield clinic. “You literally never know what you are going to get,” explains Billy. “It’s always a surprise. There is no typical case.”
The two start listing the various case types they’ve worked on through JFON. The list is huge, and you realize that their schedules must be absolutely grueling. You also notice that they keep coming back to their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals clients. What’s so appealing about the DACA cases?
“I like the positive outcome,” is Billy’s immediate answer.
“It can be one of the quicker types of immigration cases,” Hilary adds. “Asylum cases can take years.”
Now the two are busily listing the DACA cases they’ve seen come to a happy fruition: The teenaged mother trying to finish high school while raising her infant daughter; a young woman in her twenties who is now legally working and able to attend community college; the high school valedictorian whom Billy is encouraging to apply for a scholarship at a first-rate college. There are a lot of first-rate colleges in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, as full-time CWJC employees, only a small percentage of Billy and Hilary’s total work time is allocated to their JFON clients. That’s hard on them. There is so much more they want to do. There are so many more people that need their help. Hilary and Billy are such passionate advocates for our immigrant neighbors; you feel as if they would gladly split themselves into two, three, four attorneys if they could—just as long as no one who needs their help is ever turned away.
It’s a sentiment shared by Jim and Diane, of course, but everyone at the Springfield clinic must surely recognize that what they do matters. On the next Monday clinic, there will be people—fathers, mothers, children—standing in front of the imposing gothic façade of Trinity church. They will take a deep breath, walk through the doors, and find themselves on a journey to a new, more secure, more promising life.
How righteous that they don’t have to travel alone.