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Slogging away at idealist’s pay

Newark, N.J

Young attorneys can pull in $100,000 a year almost anywhere in corporate America. So what would motivate a committed few to slog away with the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network, earning $35,000 a year?

“I went to law school for idealistic reasons,” said detention attorney Ran Z. Schijanovich, who works with clients in detention centers. Schijanovich, Israeli-born son of an Argentinean father and U.S. mother, has worked since February at the Elizabeth, N.J., Detention Center.

“I wanted to do good -- a good ideal for a human being, obviously -- and at the same time I wanted to challenge myself,” he said.

With anxious asylum seekers like a Liberian young man who escaped his rebel captors, and an Iraqi teacher who escaped Saddam Hussein, Schijanovich has met his goal.

In Los Angeles, Allison Wannamaker is a detention attorney because she sees a need. “It’s something I feel strongly about,” she said. “These are people who come to the United States looking for a new life or a new start, and I -- I feel I want to help them have that opportunity. Unfortunately our laws right now make that very difficult,” she said, “but some times an attorney can make a difference.”

In New York, Tom Shea is finding that the salary he earned as a Catholic network attorney in El Paso isn’t stretching at his new post in Manhattan. “But I like what I do,” said Shea. Fortunately, “it’s never been a big desire of mine to be mega-wealthy.” But, he added with a wink, “If it happened I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

“My experience with the law students we see,” said attorney Jim Haggerty, the Catholic network’s special projects director, “is that they are generally idealistic.”

Which is just as well, for Haggerty appeals to local bar associations and Jesuit law schools to help fund and staff its programs.

Schijanovich’s slot, for example, is funded by the New Jersey Bar Association. A new venture in Louisiana, which Wannamaker will head up, is a three-way cooperation among the Catholic network, Jesuit Refugee Services and the School of Law at Loyola University, New Orleans.

The project will focus, says the Catholic network, on the “desperate needs” of individuals detained in Louisiana: some 700 to 800 in local, often rural, jails throughout the state, and more than 1,000 in Oakdale, a federal facility three-and-a-half hours from New Orleans.

Federal judges report that two-thirds of Louisiana’s detainees, which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is trying to remove, are legal permanent residents. The state claims Cuban refugees from the 1980s who have spent nearly two decades in detention.

South, West or East, the detention attorney job can be emotionally draining.

Schijanovich, a Cardoza Law School, New York, graduate, outlined two of his cases. “You have to deal with people who have suffered,” he said, “and they suffer in front of me.”

One is a 21-year-old Liberian who was 10 when rebels took away first his father and then took him. For five-and-a-half years “they used him as a slave, carrying their loads, cooking, fetching water,” Schijanovich said. They also used him “for sexual abuse,” and forced him and others like him “to loot property as the owners stood by.”

Because of the looting, some Liberians presumed the boy had joined the rebels by choice. Because of that identification, when the boy escaped the rebels, he had to flee the country. He eventually made his way to the United States as an asylum seeker.

His decision date is fast approaching. Schijanovich holds out hope, even taking a telephone call from the worried young man, calming his anxieties, during the NCR interview.

Another of Schijanovich’s cases involves a former Iraqi teacher, a Shiite Muslim in a country ruled by another Muslim branch, Saddam Hussein’s Sunis. He suffered beatings and threats because he would not join the military, though as a teacher he was exempt. After the Gulf War, Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South of Iraq revolted against Hussein, only to be crushed.

The teacher and remaining members of his family fled to the southern swamps, which Saddam Hussein systematically drained to flush out the Shiites. As the swamps dried up, the teacher went over into Iran. After years in detention, he escaped and stowed away.

The ship’s final destination was the New York-New Jersey Port Authority terminal.

On the basis of the political persecution, and the risk of ethnic persecution if he returns, the teacher has “very good prospects” of being granted asylum status, Schijanovich said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000