Numbers without Values

The majority of the work I am doing this summer is on behalf of clients who fear they will lose everything. Helping fill out forms and write motions for asylum cases, withholding of removal cases, and convention against torture cases hopefully translates into helping immigrants remain in the United States and continue caring for their children, working at their jobs, or studying at their schools. The job seems explicitly linked to a set of values, or at least an ideology. Protecting non-citizens from the whims of the political and legal system over which they have no input or control is, by definition, taking a stance. When my boss enters an immigration judge’s courtroom, he does so on the side of the respondent, a position that necessarily puts him at odds with the lawyer who takes the side of the department of homeland security. The adversarial nature of the job automatically answers the question of the values my boss (and, by extension, the law firm itself) holds regarding immigration.

That said, these values can be lost in the day-to-day work. Client names and stories, by necessity, and converted into file numbers and court-assigned due dates. An immigrant’s story could be that they entered the country illegally fourteen years early, they have since married and have 2 U.S. citizen children and work full time to provide for those children, they were convicted of a minor federal crime for which they plead guilty and received no jail time, and now they find themselves facing deportation to a country they would no longer recognize, separated from their kids who would no longer have a working parent to pay for their food, housing, and hospital bills. But at this office, the discussion about their case falls closer to “Have you been able to finish the I-589 for case 209874?” When working on this side, it can be hard to connect the string of numbers and assignment with the immigrant’s life story.

Heifetz wrote that there was no such thing as value-free leadership. Clarifying values could be functional to mobilize followers, and that leadership couldn’t occur without at least having some values in mind. The values my boss has are not a secret. If his job wasn’t tip-off enough, sometimes he sends out emails with the latest news article outlining Trump’s latest immigration-related threats as a warning for what’s about to come.

But I have to disagree with Heifetz’s assessment overall. While the broad mission of the immigration department at the law firm is surely value-driven, my boss doesn’t seem to rely on those values in his leadership. The paralegals and legal assistants hardly ever meet the clients face-to-face, so for us, clients are more so represented by those numbers and assignments than they are by their stories. The communication and assignments coming from my boss don’t typically include information about an immigrant’s life. I don’t mean to say that the work itself isn’t driven by values; I believe that it is. However, the leadership of my boss is not one that appeals to the values of his followers (employees). It is simply a matter of telling us the assignment that must be completed, and he will use it in front of a judge to argue that the client is deserving of some mercy, and the chance to stay in the United States as a contributing member of our greater society.