Hillary Farber
UMass Law Professor Hillary Farber applied her experience in criminal law to assist detained immigrants during her sabbatical.
Feature Stories 2020: Professor Hillary Farber named Pro Bono of the Year by the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project
Professor Hillary Farber named Pro Bono of the Year by the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project

UMass Law professor honored for her work with detained immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border

About 30 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona lies a dry landscape with miles of deserts and flatlands. UMass Law Professor Hillary Farber spent 4.5 months in this region last year—her entire sabbatical—representing migrants in immigration court who were seeking asylum in the United States. Farber volunteered with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project and continues to represent clients in these cases in Arizona.

The Florence Project is the largest organization providing free legal and social services to detained immigrant adults and children in Arizona. In addition to nearly 150 full-time staff, the Florence Project works with a network of over 100 pro bono attorneys across Arizona to expand access to legal counsel for detained immigrants. Advocates from the Florence Project also visit migrant shelters in Nogales, Sonora, one of the busiest ports of entry into the United States from Mexico. Legal advocates provide legal orientation to the many migrants waiting at the port who will soon seek asylum into the U.S.

“Many migrant families wait for months in squalor before they can present themselves to U.S. immigration officials and make their request for safety in the U.S.,” Farber said. “The situation was unsafe before Covid-19. Now, with Covid-19 restrictions, U.S. lawyers are having a very difficult time entering Mexico and gaining access to those waiting for their court date in the U.S.”

Described as a “compassionate, dedicated advocate” by The Florence Project

This year, the Florence Project recently named Farber Pro Bono (Attorney) of the Year for her work with the Direct Representation Program. In their digital awards booklet, the Florence Project described Farber as a “breath of fresh air” who often worked more than 40 hours a week to fight zealously for unaccompanied minors as well as adults detained in Eloy and Florence, Arizona.

According to Farber, the catalyst for her decision to spend her sabbatical representing detained immigrants at the southern border was “the sharp increase in the rounding up and detaining of immigrants who had been living in this country for many years who suddenly were finding themselves being arrested, detained, and facing removal proceedings, coupled with family separation at the border. This was a call to action for me,” Farber said upon accepting the award.

The digital awards booklet provided this description of Farber:

“With her background in criminal law and procedure, Hillary was able to artfully cut through the weeds of immigration court and develop strong arguments to fight against the erosion of due process. Hillary is a compassionate, dedicated advocate and unflappable in the courtroom.

“Collaborating with a pro bono like Hillary infuses new life into the Florence Project’s legal strategies and gives us all energy to keep doing this important, difficult work. Without Hillary, various individuals would have lost their case or languished in detention. Thanks to Hillary, our attorneys added various litigation tools to their belts and became stronger advocates.”

UMass Law Professor Hillary Farber dropping water in the Arizona desert
While on sabbatical in Arizona, Hillary Farber also volunteered with the Tucson Samaritans, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in the desert by leaving water and food along migrant pathways.

“Zealous advocacy personified"

In congratulating Farber, Anthony Pelino, adult program manager of The Florence Project, said, “[Hillary] brought a great amount of energy to our organization. I have witnessed and admired the way Hillary can read a courtroom both quickly and accurately.

“As attorneys, we all aspire to be zealous advocates for our clients. Hillary is zealous advocacy personified. She is a prime example of what happens when passion meets intellect,” Pelino added.

In addition to her legal work, Farber volunteered with local organizations in Tucson assisting migrant families. She volunteered at a shelter that served as a temporary stopping point for hundreds of migrant families.

“We clothed and fed them, provided medical services, and coordinated their transportation to meet their sponsor elsewhere in the U.S. Families stayed at the shelter on average 2-3 days and then would take a bus, sometimes for three days, to get to where their sponsor was and where they would stay while their immigration case was pending,” Farber explained.

Farber also volunteered with the Tucson Samaritans, an all-volunteer group that provides humanitarian aid to those in the desert by leaving water and food along migrant pathways.

Professor Hillary Farber standing with Florence Project attorney and client
Hillary Farber (right) with Florence Project Attorney Liz Bradley and her client, Oscar. Hillary helped Oscar win humanitarian asylum in the U.S.

Farber’s criminal law experience led to success in immigration law

As a professor of criminal law and an expert on the domestic use of unmanned aircraft, working in immigration law seems a surprising choice for Farber.

“I knew nothing about immigration law before I went to work for the Florence Project. But as a criminal defense attorney who spent years representing people in jail, I know how to litigate cases and argue to get people out of jail,” Farber said. “Those skills were transferable and, fortunately, led to a lot of success.”

Farber's skills enabled her to win humanitarian asylum for one client who fled to the U.S. after Guatemala’s Civil War.

“The immigration courts in Arizona that adjudicate detained persons have between a 92-95% denial rate. Needless to say, it is very hard and unusual to win cases before those judges,” Farber explained.

“This experience was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I am very grateful that circumstances allowed me to spend this extraordinary amount of time there immersing myself in the fight for legal and humanitarian justice for immigrants.

“I love being an advocate for justice. It is why I became a lawyer.”

Read more about Hillary Farber’s experience with the Florence Project in her blog