Two years ago, San Antonio appellate lawyer Timothy Patton found himself growing more and more frustrated by what he saw happening to people seeking asylum in the United States. He was appalled that people who had lived here for decades were facing deportation. He was horrified that families were being torn apart. So he decided to act.
“I figured I could sit around and complain—or do something,” he said.
Today, Patton devotes his time to pro bono immigration appeals. He recently gave up his for-profit practice, Timothy Patton P.C., having concluded that he needed to spend his time helping asylum-seekers, refugees and longtime U.S. residents appearing before the Board of Immigration Appeals and in federal appeals courts.
He said that lawyers from Texas and elsewhere have flocked to the Texas/Mexico border region to represent asylum-seekers in immigration court, particularly after the Trump administration instituted a policy this year that separated hundreds of children from their parents after they crossed the Texas border. But Patton said there is a large and clear need for lawyers like him to do immigration appeals.
At age 66 and after 37 years of a successful civil appeals practice, Patton said he can afford to give up income and work for free.
“The significance of what he is doing cannot be diminished in any way. It makes me not only proud of him but proud of the legal profession,” said Catherine Stone, an appellate lawyer in San Antonio and a former Texas appeals court judge who has known Patton for many years.
“Tim Patton is an outstanding lawyer and that he has chosen to completely, basically, shut down his … paying practice and devote his time to people who are truly marginalized is so admirable,” said Stone, now a partner at Langley & Banack in San Antonio. “Marginalized people are getting the cream of the crop in terms of the representation they will get on appeal, because he’s at the top.”
Over his long career, Patton mostly handled appeals for the clients of plaintiffs attorneys—the last 18 years as a solo practitioner. But he said that, over the last 18 months, he has learned immigration appellate law on a case-by-case basis, using the appellate skills he honed over many years. ”I’ve been lucky to have found the only area of law which would allow me to do what I like to do,” he said.
Patton added that, when he decided he no longer wanted to do civil appeals, he had “a kind of epiphany” when he realized he could use his skills to represent clients who really need his pro bono representation.
Patton formed a nonprofit, the Appellate Immigration Project, in March 2017. His wife and daughter are directors, and the nonprofit’s only paid employee is Patton’s longtime paralegal/secretary/proofreader.
In the beginning, Patton said he funded all of the nonprofit’s work, but over the last six months, he has received enough contributions—some from lawyers and judges—to support his pro bono work for the next year-and-a-half.
Patton takes client referrals from the BIA Pro Bono Appeals Project, which is run by the Maryland-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network. His clients have come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and the Republic of South Sudan. So far, he has worked on immigration appeals for eight pro bono clients and said he recently took two additional referrals.
The skills Patton polished during his career as an appellate lawyer for the clients of plaintiffs attorneys have proved useful in his immigration work. One recent client, a man from Honduras, sought asylum on the grounds that, like his brother, he would be murdered by the MS-13 gang if forced to return home. A judge awarded him asylum, but the Department of Homeland Security appealed. Patton then stepped in, and the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with his client, who is now living in the United States.
“It’s a pretty good feeling when you win something like that,” Patton said.
Another client, a Sudanese man who had lived legally in the United States for more than 20 years, got into a fight with the boyfriend of an ex-girlfriend and, on the advice of a public defender, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge. Homeland Security used that conviction to seek his deportation, Patton said.
The man appeared in immigration court pro se and convinced a judge that he would be tortured by the government if sent to South Sudan. But the government appealed, and the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with Homeland Security and ordered him deported. Patton was brought in and filed an appeal before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. There, the federal prosecutor agreed that the Bureau of Immigration Appeals ruled improperly, and the appeals court remanded the case.
Patton’s clients are in detention in various locations, and he communicates with them by phone and in writing. He said he speaks passable Spanish and writes better so can largely communicate with his Spanish-speaking clients.
The BIO Pro Bono Appeals Project has reviewed more than 7,200 appeals cases since it was created in 2001 and distributes appeals to a roster of about 440 lawyers, including Patton. According to the nonprofit, 46 percent of cases handled in the most recent quarter had a positive outcome.
Patton said his decision to do pro bono immigration appeals exclusively is not related to politics. He is a Democrat, but his interest in the area comes from his work on the plaintiffs side.
“I spent my entire career representing individuals, for the most part, and helping them fight fights against people who very often were wealthier and had more funding and support systems,” he said.
For him, immigration cases are always so personal, and the facts are compelling.
“My view on doing appellate work has always been that you win by telling the better story, he said. “And what’s enjoyable about this type of work is you always have a good story.”