October 1, 2015

STRANGER: Amber Murray
LOCATION: La Bonne Bistro, 2436 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Interviewing an immigration attorney

Amber Murray is still haunted by an email.

She’s an immigration lawyer and had been working on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) case for her client Jalal Mando, who was trying to flee religious and ethnic persecution in Iraq. Jalal was desperate to escape his home country. He served with U.S. forces in Iraq, which qualified him for a special visa to come to the States. Every day he would email Amber, asking for updates. But the wheels of human rights and immigration law turn slowly, and she had no updates for him. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Jalal decided to leave Iraq. It was a fatal move.

Jalal’s case was still in the evidence-gathering stage, which can take a long time. “It was hard to keep explaining to him that the case just wasn’t ready,” Amber told me during a dinner in Washington, D.C. “One night I got yet another email from him and I didn’t respond at the time. I’d already had the same conversation a million times,” she said.

A few days later Amber received the haunting email. This time from her client’s nephew. The subject line: Jalal Mando. “I had a really bad feeling about it,” Amber said, visibly downbeat at the memory. The email told about how Jalal had all of a sudden decided that waiting for a SIV through the lengthy legal process would take too long. He had packed up his belongings and decided to walk — walk, Amber stressed at the enormity of it — to Germany for freedom.

“He went on foot. No money, no resources,” Amber said. Along the way he drank some contaminated water, making him ill. Nevertheless, he made it to Greece but was detained by the authorities there. While imprisoned he unfortunately had more contaminated water, and got very sick. The Greeks passed him on to Turkey, and a few days later, Jalal was dead. He was allegedly also beaten in jail, which contributed to his death, Amber said.

“Of all the cases I’ve done, that one still haunts me,” Amber said. She thinks of Jalal as a peer, as they were both born in 1982, yet lived very different lives. “I feel like I couldn’t get him out of Iraq fast enough, or I didn’t reassure him enough, because he decided to leave. I took his death hard because I failed at my job, and he died. I still take it personally.”

I suggested to Amber that it wasn’t her failure, but rather the failure of a byzantine legal system that creates seemingly endless hurdles constructed from thick red tape. She nodded, then shrugged. “The system did fail him — but what if I wrote him back and said, ‘Just be patient’?”

Amber, who runs her own small immigration law firm from home, said that a fellow community member in Iraq has since told her that Jalal would probably have lost patience at some point and left Iraq, regardless of whether Amber wrote back. And she can see the merit in that argument.

“But unfortunately, my personality is such that I take these cases very personally because you get to know these people really well,” Amber said. So why does she stick with the career? It took her a millisecond to reply. “The bottom line is this: If I was in the situation of my clients, I would want someone to help me out. For me it’s just that simple,” she said.

Dealing with cases like Jalal’s might break some weaker people. But not Amber. Although she’s still regretful about how that case turned out, it appears to have only emboldened her crusade to focus on human rights and asylum cases — not exactly a lucrative side of law.

During our two-hour dinner at La Bonne Bistro, Amber shared emotionally taxing stories about several of her clients. But even though some of them had sad endings, there was always an optimistic epilogue. Amber is determined to keep fighting for people in similar situations. That fits in with the impression that she gives of an upbeat, confident 33-year-old.

She’s also quick to joke, quipping on the low pay of her specialized legal field (“What on earth do you mean?” she gasped with fake sarcasm when I said I assumed the money wasn’t great) and about the finer points of law (“I once had a case denied for a stupid reason — that’s a legal term of art”).

Yet she’s serious about her work and her liberal moral code. This is a woman, after all, who spent a law school class getting into a verbal spat with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the George W. Bush administration figure who hid the Spirit of Justice — or at least the statue’s naughtier bits — behind a thick, blue curtain. At school, he led Amber’s class in prayer sessions.

The case of Murray vs. Ashcroft was just one of several things I learned about Amber after she reached out to go dining with a stranger. She suggested La Bonne Bistro as she’d enjoyed eating at the French bistro at its former location on U Street. The bistro has since moved to a nearby venue, hosted within the restaurant Crème on 14th Street.

A French venue was apt given that Amber has spent several years living in that country, as well as stints in several other places overseas: Italy, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria (prior to the uprising) and Palestine. She says she’s a naturally curious person who wants to see more of the world.

While we sipped on aperitifs of Kir Royal (champagne with crème de cassis), Amber told me that she thought Dining With Strangers was an interesting idea. “I really like what you did, and I like meeting people. I talk to everybody I meet,” she said with a smile.

Amber was born in Tennessee and spent most of her early life there, though now she speaks with a neutral accent. “Everyone at home thinks I’m a Yankee now.”

In 2000, she went to university in her home state, studying political science. When I asked why, she chuckled and said, “That’s a very good question. I honestly wanted to do international relations but my university didn’t have it, so political science was the closest I could get.”

She’s always had a love of traveling and seeing the world, saying it was something that developed at an early age. “I have seen a lot of cultures that have opened my mind,” she said. “I come from a very small town and my parents aren’t particularly world travelers. But they always instilled in me the belief that you must respect everybody equally. Nobody is better than you, but you’re no better than anybody else. Treat everyone with kindness and respect,” she said. “Between that and traveling a lot, that’s how I developed my worldview. It’d be totally different if I had never traveled.”

One day, Amber realized she needed to figure out what to do with her life. She wanted to work in international development, but had several friends who had graduated already and couldn’t find jobs in that field. Not wanting to get what she calls another “useless degree” on top of political science, Amber decided on law. “I thought I could be trained to be analytical and understand the law, and use that for an international relations job.”

After settling on law, she hoped to specialize in human rights law with an international focus. Amber was at law school in Miami from 2008-2011, peppered with more trips overseas. It was on a study summer in France after her first year of law school when she met Ashcroft.

While I snacked on some of the restaurant’s bread — served with store-bought, almost frozen butter – Amber elaborated on her head-to-head with the former attorney general.

Ashcroft taught a class at the summer school Amber attended in 2009. “He and I do not come from the same political persuasion,” she said. Amber found it “very laughable” that he was teaching a class on national security and civil liberties, because in her opinion Ashcroft’s actions during the Bush administration were the antithesis of civil liberty. She cites examples like imprisoning people in Guantanamo Bay without due process. “So I sat in the front row, and asked him: How do you reconcile the tenets of your faith with the things you did in office?”

This apparently angered Ashcroft, who accused Amber of having a “soft heart for terrorists,” and defended the imprisonments as necessary actions, as those in the jail might try to attack America if released. The verbal sparring continued as Amber provided statistics showing that few, if any, of the detainees committed any acts of terror after being released. Ashcroft sneered and asked where Amber got those statistics. The Pentagon, she said. That’s when he shut down the debate.

“It took a lot for me to confront him. It wasn’t easy but, but all I did was complain during the Bush administration, so how could I not do that?” Amber said of the verbal jousting. “I wish I had a signed picture from Ashcroft saying, ‘Dear Amber, you have a soft heart for terrorists,’” she added, laughing.

I repeat the Ashcroft anecdote because I think it speaks to Amber’s personality. She’s clearly not afraid to speak her mind, and she’s assured in her convictions. And her interest in global affairs continued throughout law school and after. She spent some time interning at the State Department in the International Religious Freedom Office, including work fighting persecution of Christians and other religious minorities for the office’s North Africa and Middle East team. She’s still in touch with her old boss at that office, as some of her current work on asylum cases touches on religious freedom issues.

After graduating law school she had a short stint working at a law firm in Tennessee (where she qualified for the bar to practice in that state) and then a brief period working for a non-governmental organization in Palestine. Upon her return to the States, she returned as a contractor for the federal government with a role at the International Trade Commission in the general counsel’s office working on intellectual property trade cases. But it wasn’t the law that she wanted to practice.

A government shutdown in 2013 led to Amber’s contract being cut, and that was the motivation she needed to decide to launch her own firm, specializing in immigration. She operates the Murray Law firm out of her house, which allows her great scheduling flexibility.

Before Amber could elaborate on the launch of her firm, our waiter returned. Amber didn’t want a starter, but I was rather hungry so decided to get an appetizer. I chose that night’s special, a bowl of French onion soup.

It’s a basic meal of broth, onions, cheese, and croutons. Unfortunately this version wasn’t remarkable. The bland, watery soup didn’t taste of much. It was surprising that a dish packed with so many onions and a mound of cheese on top would have no flavor.

But the soup wasn’t bad enough to turn away, so I worked at the bowl while Amber explained that she initially thought she’d have a broad immigration practice but quickly focused on asylum and family cases. The bulk of her practice is about 90 percent asylum seekers, with family reunification cases and human rights cases rounding it up to 100 percent. It’s not highly profitable. “Asylum seekers don’t have a lot of money,” she said, “But it’s what I’m interested in.”

Her first-ever asylum case came about thanks to dining out in the District. She got talking to her waiter, who told her he was from Egypt. Amber shared stories about her time living in Cairo. Somehow the conversation got onto the guy’s immigration woes. Amber said that he could apply for asylum, handed over her business card, and had secured her first case. “He kind of let me experiment with him pro bono,” she said with a nervous laugh. “But we won the case.”

That case secured Amber’s belief that she had embarked on the right career. “I like it because it deals with a lot of international issues, my client base is almost exclusively Syrian and Iraqi, and a few Mexicans. I feel a particular kinship with the Syrian community because I spent time there and people treated with me such respect that it’s the least I can do. And it’s a country I know, I understand its issues, its politics and international issues and I can bring all of that into a case.”

Amber said she also loves her work because of her potential to help people “going through the very worst times in their lives. I can be a bit of a beacon of hope for them.”

Still, the work is challenging, she said.

For an asylum case to succeed a person must demonstrate a well-founded fear to return home, and that can be a hard bar to meet. “A lot of people are in terrible situations, but I have to turn down a lot of cases because I don’t think they meet the qualifications. For example, it’s awful that their city was bombed, but it was not bombed because they were there. There has to be both an objective and a subjective fear of returning — I have to figure out how that ties in to my client,” said Amber.

The stories are brutal. She recounted a 15-year-old boy from Syria standing in the street peacefully protesting against President Assad’s government, just a dozen or so school kids without any weapons. Just a child, he looked younger than his age, wearing his book bag from school. And a sniper shot him in the head. He didn’t die instantly, but passed away in hospital later. He was surrounded by his parents, who were screaming in anguish at the bloody scene. Afterward, the government detained some of his relatives, torturing them in prison, thinking the entire family was opposed to the Assad regime. That kind of “merciless” behavior against a specific family is the kind of litmus test for whether an asylum case might succeed, Amber said.

It’s the same with asylum seekers in Iraq, and it can be heart-wrenching for Amber when she hears stories of youngsters desperate to flee but who don’t meet the legal requirements for securing a new home overseas. They’re trapped behind a regulatory barrier, unable to escape a horrendous situation.

One Yezidi Iraqi girl that Amber met on a trip to that country had been kidnapped along with thousands of other girls — “7,000. 7,000. 7,000,” Amber repeated in disgust — by the terrorist group ISIS and forced to live with one of her captors (the same man that oversaw an auction of other girls). His wife just turned a blind eye. The first night, after her arrival, the girl pleaded with the wife to help her escape, the women shrugged her response that “Every woman arrives at this point in their life. There’s nothing I can do for you.”

The girl escaped and sought help from strangers, only to be betrayed by an alleged savior and returned to the auctioneer. She was forcibly married to him, then raped and so badly beaten — because she tried to escape — she was unable to lift her hands to wash her face for two months. But when she was strong enough, she escaped again and this time found someone who drove her to a refugee camp, but demanded $1,500 for the privilege. Now the guy is hounding the girl every day, pestering her to settle a bill she can’t afford.

There isn’t much Amber could do for the girl. “I could get her asylum case approved, but the issue is you can apply for asylum only in the U.S. and she is in Iraq. And it is almost impossible for her to get to the U.S.,” she said. But it’s the stories like that which stick in Amber’s memory.

“I’m sorry, this is probably really depressing,” Amber said apologetically.

She was worried that the serious nature of much of the interview had cast a pall over the evening. I countered that she had nothing to worry about, and that her tale was fascinating, if tough to hear. And it helped that each time Amber shared a heartbreaking story about someone struggling overseas, she’d provide a coda of optimism by vowing to help those that she could.

“It is incredibly stressful work, and sometimes I feel like I have refugee fatigue, where I can’t hear another bad story,” Amber said. In order to maintain sanity, she said, “I try to be very good about  after a certain time of night not answering phone calls or emails from people. I create my own boundaries” — and being her own boss makes it easier to set those limits.

I’m glad she was able to find the time to get dinner with me, because she’s excellent company. Thoughtful, funny, smart and the conversation never flagged, and our waiter was quite apologetic when having to interrupt to bring us our main courses.

Amber opted for the beef bourguignon, the classic French stew with red wine, carrots, baby onions, and topped with two large ravioli. She said it was delicious.

I had more than enough food on my plate with the braised short ribs, served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. It was a crisp night, so this was good comfort food.

Alas, the star of the dish was the creamy mashed potato — a disappointment given that the ribs should be the standout. Instead the meat was tougher than I’d expect from something that’s been braised, and the sauce lacked any distinguishing flavor.

Much like the onion soup starter, the entree was acceptable enough to not turn away or ask for it to be switched out. But I don’t think I’d hurry back to the restaurant.

However, I’d happily dine again with Amber, if only to learn about what happens with the future of her immigration practice. And she’s already got plans for that.

Heading into 2016, Amber wants to stop taking asylum cases and focus on human rights cases. Currently the main way to pursue such suits is through international tribunal suits with bodies such as the Inter-American Court on Human Rights or the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. “The problem is they don’t really have any teeth. They can write a letter saying, ‘Shame on you,’ but nothing really gets done,” Amber said, frustrated.

But there are provisions in United States law that allow for federal suits seeking damages against people overseas for human rights violations. If a lawyer can tie a person accused of human rights violations in another country with assets in the United States, a court can seize those assets and the damages can be awarded to the victims in those cases. Those are the cases that Amber wants to transition toward pursuing in the coming months.

The change in focus in her work likely won’t alter the stress level, she said. And sometimes she daydreams about what another career might be like. But then she remembers that she got into this work to help others, and that overrides any personal setbacks she might have.

As dinner came to an end, Amber reiterated her belief that sometimes she feels like she only delivers disappointment to people, or that victories take a long time.

However, she sticks with the work regardless of how arduous it is, and said it’s simple to see why. She said, “I would hope that if my country had erupted and I was at the lowest moment in my life — because of circumstances I did nothing to cause, but just because I happened to be from that country — I would want somebody to help me out. Wouldn’t you?”