Yazmin Rodriguez and Danielle Robinson-Briand
Yazmin Rodriguez and Danielle Robinson-Briand ()

In Bridgeport, a city with a distinct immigrant flavor, two attorneys are forging a reputation as ombudswomen for undocumented minors. Their names are Danielle Robinson-Briand and Yazmin Rodriguez, both graduates of Quinnipiac School of Law who have joined forces to form the Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy.

For these young lawyers, the debate over what to do with the thousands of young Central American immigrants streaming into the U.S. doesn’t start along the banks of the Rio Grande or in the halls of Congress. It starts in New Haven, where Rodriguez spoke at a recent rally in support of a compassionate U.S. policy toward the refugees, and elsewhere in southern Connecticut, where the duo represents children and teens whose back stories are equally harrowing and heart-breaking.

Feeling a need to help the often helpless, Robinson-Briand and Rodriguez have a special bond with their clients.

Many of the young people they represent have been “picking coffee [beans] since they were 8 or 10 years old,” Robinson-Briand says. “They think it’s their responsibility to be working once they get here. We try to convince them their life will be infinitely better if they embrace school. It’s a struggle for some of our clients. They feel the burden of supporting their families.”

Robinson-Brian graduated with her J.D. from Quinnipiac in 2010. She and her husband moved their family to Arkansas, where she practiced for two years before returning to Connecticut and setting up Briand and Pruslow in Bridgeport.

That practice dissolved in the fall of 2013, replaced by Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy, a “low-bono” firm that’s part of a growing access-to-justice movement. Specializing in deportation defense and political asylum cases, the firm has a caseload of about 100, with many of the clients from Central America, Brazil, Syria, the Congo and Ivory Coast. They’ve set up symbolically on Bridgeport’s Clinton Avenue, across the street from the International Institute of Connecticut, an organization that helps immigrants relaunch their lives in America.

“We’re here to help whoever,” Robinson-Briand says. “But we’re happy to be helping the people who can walk to our office….We’re representing the working poor. Our goal is to help people access their rights. We try to be as creative as possible.”

After launching the firm, Robinson-Briand found herself in the market for a heady attorney with a nose for immigration law. Rodriguez fit like a puzzle piece when she came aboard this year. A 2012 Quinnipiac law graduate, Rodriguez is the daughter of a large, middle-class, immigrant family and understands the life of an undocumented immigrant.

In 1993, when she was just 12, her family came to the U.S. from Bogota, Colombia. For a young girl, it was jarring. “It was an abrupt change in my life, and I didn’t really have a say in it,” Rodriguez said.

Early on, she set her heart on becoming an attorney and helping people like her earn citizenship in this country. She remained in the states even when her father returned to Colombia for six years. In America, she struggled with identify issues, depression and anxiety. Because she was undocumented until her first year of college, she couldn’t apply for scholarships. “I felt like I was an outcast,” she said. “I tried to hide the fact I was undocumented. You feel afraid and embarrassed.”

Embarrassment has given way to appreciation. “It makes me more aware of the struggle that our clients go through,” she said. “For me, I value things, and I really appreciate the opportunity this country has given me.”

During her eight years as an immigration paralegal in New York, Rodriguez spent time at the Westchester Hispanic Coalition. She was working as an attorney at the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, which assists adults who have mental illness, when the director there put her in touch with Robinson-Briand.

The two would-be partners began collaborating on a case of a teenager from El Salvador with severe psychiatric issues in 2013.

He is seeking an immigrant visa that requires a special finding from a judge. Since the teenager had recently turned 18, the attorneys couldn’t go the usual route through juvenile court, so they crafted a creative way to convince a judge the boy should remain in the United States since reunification with his family in El Salvador wasn’t viable.

The boy’s family faced intense persecution in El Salvador. In 2011, his brother was targeted and murdered by one of the notorious street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 18, because he had dated a gang member’s former girlfriend.

The Maras, as they’re often called, trace their roots to Southern California. Young, impoverished men seeking refuge from their civil war-torn countries traveled to California, setting up vicious gangs on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The FBI cracked down on and arrested gang members, most of whom were sent back to their countries, where they resumed their violent organized ways.

The Central American gangs are ruthless recruiters of young boys. They rely heavily on violence to convince unwilling recruits, as was the case with another of the firm’s clients, a young man from Honduras, who is seeking asylum in the United States. He can no longer return to his country or he risks immediate execution by gang members.

Fearful after he, too, found out he was next on the gang’s hit list, the Salvadoran boy fled his homeland and sought asylum in the U.S. Most of his family members are here, too, working and sending money back to relatives who still live in the unstable country.

His case is still pending, but he recently cleared a once significant hurdle and awaits a decision from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. Once that review is complete, he may be able to apply for a green card.

Exposure to gang violence is a common theme for people Robinson-Briand and Rodriguez represent.

“The gang issue in El Salvador is created by our deportation policy,” Robinson-Briand said. “The gangbangers have metastasized in those countries because the [Salvadoran] government is very weak. I do think there is a lack of political will [in the U.S.] to deal with this refugee situation. The insensitive rhetoric politicians use in the media to discuss what’s happening originates from fear—that our quality of life will somehow suffer because we have to divert our resources to these people.”

The Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy. Even the name of the firm carries significant meaning.

In Spanish, “esperanza” means hope and trust. Rodriquez says in addition to providing legal services, she offers advice and informal counseling to her young clients. She wants to build trust and give them hope.

“Even if we don’t necessarily find [legal] relief for them right away … there are ways that they can continue their studies here, they can have a career here, they can have a good life,” she said. “Being undocumented isn’t a reason for them to feel discouraged. We want to encourage them to pursue their dreams.”

Rodriguez tries to give the type of advice she didn’t get when she came to the U.S.

“I was told that it would be almost impossible for me to become a lawyer. I never got [any] sort of encouragement,” she said. “Sometimes I do share my story with them so they know what I’ve been through. Once they hear. ‘Hey, I’ve been there; I know what it is to leave your country, to leave your friends behind, to leave that kind of world you lived in for a completely different environment’… It’s important for them to know they’re not the only ones.”

In the case of the Salvadoran boy, Rodriguez says he must deal with his past trauma day-to-day. But she is optimistic he has a brighter future here than if he was forced to return home. “He definitely wants a better life,” she said.•