This weekend, Michelle McGeogh will make her way to Lumpkin, Ga., to a detention facility “in the middle of nowhere,” to spend a week helping detained immigrants prepare for interviews in pursuit of asylum with the Department of Homeland Security. Working pro bono with the full support of her firm, Ballard Spahr, she will help her clients build a case for credible fear screenings, a critical first step in the asylum process.
In a credible fear screening, the DHS interviewer questions the detainee about his or her grounds for feeling persecuted: Has the individual ever been threatened or harmed due to race or ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because the person belongs to a specific social group? This is a key moment in the interview, because if the applicant’s fear is not attributed to one of these factors, the asylum case is likely to fail.
“The reason I got involved in doing this immigrant work was because I was horrified by the (U.S. government) policy of family separation at the border,” says McGeogh, who earned her J.D. from UB School of Law in 2007. “I have two kids, so the family separation issue is really what inspired me.” She is working in conjunction with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
She credits Ballard Spahr, where she has been an associate since 2007 and earlier this year was named of counsel, with encouraging her active pro bono efforts. McGeogh has won the firm’s Alan J. Davis Award, which recognizes pro bono work, in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018.
This year’s recognition was for her efforts leading a Ballard team that works with the Maryland Juvenile Lifers Parole Representation Project, or MJLPRP, an effort by UB School of Law’s Juvenile Justice Project and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in response to the unmet need for legal representation for people serving life sentences in Maryland prisons for crimes committed as juveniles.
The team of 12 Ballard attorneys represent five juvenile lifers, four of whom are imprisoned at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. “It’s like another world out there,” she says. The lawyers have had to work extremely hard to gain proper access to their clients. Their ultimate goal is to obtain parole hearings for their clients, most of whom are convicted of murder, and prepare them to do well in those hearings.
McGeogh says the pro bono work she has done at Ballard, especially when she was a new associate, gave her opportunities to conduct litigation at a level she would not otherwise have had. “It makes me a better lawyer,” she says.