Public Interest Path to Asylum Innovation

by Vault Law Editors | June 30, 2011

Before Munmeeth Soni entered law school at American University in DC, she knew she wanted to be a public interest attorney. “I had always been interested in advocacy,” she says. In her post-undergraduate job with the Social Science Research Council, Soni worked in the South Asia program, focusing on refugees, migration and sexuality. As she learned about the legal aspect of the work, she realized that attorneys were “better positioned to effect change and have a direct impact on individual lives,” she says. “That’s what motivated me. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Once in law school, Soni continued her commitment to public interest, working on a human rights internship in Cairo, an ICC criminal investigation against the Sudan regarding the Darfur crisis, and an internship with the ACLU focusing on impact work. She also participated in a law school clinic on women’s issues, including VAWA work. These varied experiences helped Soni conclude that she was “best suited for” direct services, and she planned to pursue this direction through a clerkship as a public defender after law school. But when funding for the position didn’t work out, Soni found herself jobless in the midst of the economic crisis.

Having relocated from DC to California, Soni wasn’t familiar with the public interest network in the area and had difficulty finding a public service position. Instead, she landed a job at a small law firm working on business and real estate litigation. Soni spent the next year and a half at the firm, which was enough to convince her that she was meant to practice public interest law—it “gave me a lot of motivation to really dedicate myself,” she says.

It was then that Soni pursued an AmeriCorps fellowship through Equal Justice Works—a program that was developed “to address the gaps in the legal aid community through pro bono management and direct representation” according to Equal Justice Works’ website. As an AmeriCorps fellow, Soni has worked in the immigration unit of the Public Law Center in Orange County, California. “Our organization is one of the very few organizations that [is] serving the low-income needs of the community in Orange County,” she says. In the immigration unit, Soni focuses on “victim-based immigration relief,” which includes assisting “survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and other serious forms of crime.” Soni’s work includes recruiting and training attorneys to work on pro bono matters, enlisting law students to do pro bono work and handling her own caseload. The position also allows Soni “the freedom to be creative and think outside the box,” she says.

Munmeeth Soni

In describing her role, Soni speaks with such enthusiasm and pride, it is no wonder that she has decided to pursue a second opportunity with the Public Law Center, this time through an Equal Justice Works fellowship. In researching the local area, Soni realized there was a significant need for asylum assistance. She “spent three to four months going around speaking to community organizations, assessing the need from the community about whether an asylum program was needed in Orange County." Soni found that there were no organizations in the area focusing on asylum, forcing people to travel to L.A. for assistance or hire private attorneys. She also uncovered a recent “explosion” in the detainee population in the area. Taking initiative, Soni developed a proposal for a new practice area at the Public Law Center that will focus exclusively on asylum work—she was awarded an Equal Justice Works fellowship to pursue this project (sponsored by Latham & Watkins). Her work will include going to detention centers, generating intake forms, operating clinics on asylum, and performing “outreach in the community to raise awareness of this kind of relief.”

Soni’s project also includes a unique goal to supply more holistic support to asylum seekers: she will partner with health providers to offer a “pro bono mental health referral system.” Many asylum seekers have suffered “post-traumatic stress or depression,” and sometimes they are required to demonstrate such medical issues to establish extreme circumstances for their asylum cases. “I’ll feel like I’ve really succeeded if I can set up this pro bono mental health” program, she says.

Ready to transition from her AmeriCorps fellowship to the Equal Justice Works fellowship, Soni’s dream to make a direct impact on people’s everyday lives has come true. She credits Equal Justice Works with providing her these opportunities: “I owe it all to them in a way,” she says. “I knew this was the path I always wanted to take.”

More About Munmeeth Soni
Equal Justice Works

Equal Justive Works Fellowships
Public Law Center

Read More:
25 Years of Equal Justice Works
Leading the Legal World Toward Public Interest: Equal Justice Works Celebrates 25 Years

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Filed Under: Law


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