The Pro Bono Spotlight honors volunteers and the important work they do to help Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA fulfill its mission of serving communities in need. In this edition, we recognize Shirley Wei, an immigration attorney with her own practice, the Law Office of Shirley Wei.
Shirley has experience with a broad range of immigration law, including but not limited to non-immigrant visas, family-based and employment-based visas, and removal defense. She is also a longtime board member of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA), and is currently serving as its President-Elect. Shirley is a longtime supporter of Advancing Justice-LA and has provided critical pro bono support to Advancing Justice-LA on more than one matter. We asked Shirley to discuss her involvement with Advancing Justice-LA.
How did you learn about Advancing Justice-LA?
I first learned of Advancing Justice-LA when I became involved with the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA) in 2010 – back when the organization was called the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC). The issues that APALC was addressing immediately struck a chord with me, as did the history behind the founding of the organization. I couldn’t believe how recent the murder of Vincent Chin was and how light the sentence imposed on his killers was. I enjoyed looking through the informative APA historical timeline on APALC’s website (which is still there today on Advancing Justice-LA’s website: https://archive.advancingjustice-la.org/who-we-are/history), filled with amazing photographs and interesting tidbits of historical information. The first people that I met at APALC also really made a positive impression on me, and I admired the integrity of the organization.
What prompted you to get involved?
As an immigration attorney, there have been myriad ways for me to get involved with Advancing Justice-LA over the years. In the past, I’ve volunteered at citizenship and DACA clinics, and I also helped organize a fundraiser through SCCLA in 2013 when the Pro Bono Program was just starting.
It wasn’t until more recently that I had the chance to be involved in longer-term matters. Earlier this year, Advancing Justice-LA asked me if I could handle a particularly complex immigration case that had no legal precedent, and I knew I had to take it. After I got to know the client and saw how hard she worked and how unfair her immigration situation was, I vowed I would not let her get deported. One of the maxims that I live by is “never give up.” That case has taken me through USCIS, immigration court, superior court, and federal court. The matter is still pending, and I am standing by my promise to the client - I’m not going to let her get deported.
The second time Advancing Justice-LA called on me this year was to handle an H-1B visa petition pro bono, for one of its employees in the Health Access Program. The H-1B visa is an employment-based visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations that very often require a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is a very desirable visa for students who obtain their degrees in the U.S. on an F-1 visa and wish to seek future employment in their field of study in the U.S. The H-1B visa is capped at 65,000 visas per year, plus another 20,000 for those with master’s degrees, and is subject to a lottery selection system. In other words, even if someone is qualified for an H-1B visa, if their application is not selected by the lottery, it never even gets considered.
Because the other maxim that I live by is “you never know until you try,” I immediately agreed to handle this matter for Advancing Justice-LA, although I knew that there was a high chance that we might not succeed due to factors outside of our control.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience as an Advancing Justice-LA volunteer?
In the complex immigration case that I took on for Advancing Justice-LA this year, the client had already passed her naturalization interview and was literally at the last step of becoming a U.S. citizen, when USCIS decided there was a discrepancy in the law that not only made her ineligible for citizenship, but also for her green card. This affected me deeply. Imagine spending years in this country, reaching the last step before attaining your dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen, only to be stripped of all assurances of your legal status here and ending up in removal proceedings. The client works as a caregiver for the State of California, taking care of elderly folks and has a U.S. citizen son in the military. She is the epitome of someone who deserves to stay in the United States, and no one should go through what she is going through right now. I believe that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is wrong on the law, and I want to prove them wrong. I am doing everything I can to make sure that she stays in the U.S.
Do you have an inspirational story you can briefly tell about your experience volunteering?
When I took on the H-1B visa case for Advancing Justice-LA, our expectations for success were low, and for good reason. We had maybe a one in three chance of being selected in the lottery, and Advancing Justice-LA had never succeeded in the H-1B process before. Regardless, I wanted to ensure we put our best foot forward in the application. Through preparing the papers, I got to know the Health Access Program (HAP) and the important work that the beneficiary has done/would be doing for the Asian Pacific Islander community, and I truly hoped for the best.
We did receive a Request for Evidence (RFE) after submitting the papers (i.e., the government requested additional information in support of the application). Based on the nature of the RFE, I was almost certain that the H-1B visa would get approved, but of course did not share this with anyone. I was thrilled when my instincts were confirmed and our H-1B visa was approved! I am extremely proud and honored to be a part of this significant milestone for Advancing Justice-LA, and I hope this will enable HAP to keep doing its vital work.
What advice would you give other individuals who want to participate in volunteer or pro bono work?
Lawyers are often stretched to their limits as it is, and find it difficult to set aside additional time to devote to pro bono work. But I can honestly say that some of my most compelling and memorable cases have been pro bono cases. They present excellent opportunities for legal practitioners to learn a new area of law that they otherwise wouldn’t, or to handle a particularly challenging set of facts that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Attorneys should consider the fact that taking on a compelling, challenging pro bono case can give them serious longtime bragging rights.
Today’s immigration climate has created many more people in need of immigration lawyers than there are to go around. So the country is in serious need of pro bono lawyers right now. Rather than lamenting on social media about the our country’s current state of affairs, take on a case! Help keep a family together in the United States. Help keep our government accountable and make sure it upholds the civil rights that have shaped our country. And then go brag about it on social media.
Most lawyers became lawyers because they wanted to help people and to make a difference in this world. To be able to do that is a privilege. Although I have put in a lot of hours into pro bono cases, the gratitude that clients express more than makes up for it, as well as the feeling of immense satisfaction in knowing that I have accomplished what I set out to do.