Help for female immigrants fleeing violence is this lawyer’s calling

Anne Chandler has marshaled a team in Houston to take on complex and protracted cases – many of which were rejected by other lawyers who deemed them ‘unwinnable.’

Evin Ashley Erdogdu
Anne Chandler is the first director of the Tahirih Justice Center’s Houston office.

In the early 1990s, when Anne Haenel Chandler was a law student at the University of Houston, the not-too-distant US border with Mexico beckoned with plenty of immigration cases. One case, involving a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl, changed her life.

The teen, by Ms. Chandler’s account, had fled her home country after being raped, and was raped again as she tried to reach the United States. She was at a US detention center, with no release date in sight, when the aspiring lawyer met her.

At the time, the term “international refugee” was applied to individuals who had been persecuted because of factors such as their religion or political beliefs, but it did not specifically address gender-related persecution. It appeared to be an uphill battle to win asylum for the girl.

As it happened, the case moved forward on a technicality, and the girl was granted asylum. But for the law student who had taken up the case, it laid bare the challenges for girls and women fleeing violence – and indicated that the extent of legal protections for these individuals could be explored further.

“It was then I became more interested in defining the ‘frontier’ of US immigration law, to help these women obtain justice,” Chandler says.

Since then, Chandler has worked tirelessly on this front, including at the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic. In 2009, she stepped up to the position she holds now: the first director of the Houston office of the Tahirih Justice Center, which is a national nonprofit providing legal and educational services to protect female immigrants fleeing violence.

Often the cases that Tahirih takes on are complex and protracted, and were rejected by other lawyers who deemed them “unwinnable.” Yet in Texas, Chandler has marshaled a team of more than 250 pro bono attorneys and 15 staff members to tackle the cases that most lawyers avoid.

Tahirih Houston mainly serves clients who arrived in the US from Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America. Immigrant women and girls can be twice as likely to experience domestic violence when compared with the general US population, according to Tahirih. Other issues the Houston office has taken on include sexual assault, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and fear of honor killing.

“Usually, we take the cases where we feel we can effect the most good – the cases that are most likely to result in a loss for the client, which also have the potential to set precedent in US immigration law,” Chandler says.

The native of Santa Rosa, Calif., actually started out as a team of one at Tahirih Houston. She recruited lawyers who were willing to contribute both time and money – no small feat, according to Andrea “AJ” Johnson, who serves on an advisory council for Tahirih Houston and is a member of Texas Women Lawyers, an organization supporting the interests of women in the justice system. “It’s not easy to get an attorney’s attention. The minutes count for dollars,” Ms. Johnson says.

“When Anne reached out to me, I had no idea the enormity of the issue we were facing. Immigration law was, and still is, a field that is not widely understood by the public,” Johnson points out. One thing in their favor, she says, is Chandler’s winsome way with others. “Anne had to be very engaging – and she is. You can’t walk away from her,” Johnson says.

Raising public awareness

Chandler spends considerable time trying to raise public awareness about the violence that some female immigrants deal with. She has spoken to a wide array of audiences, using a manner of delivery that has an emotional honesty and makes these complex issues more approachable.

“She uses her optimism to educate the community on these pertinent issues and convince individuals of the great need to bring justice to fruition,” says Lue Dillard, who also serves on Tahirih Houston’s advisory council and has worked with Chandler since 2009.

Chandler herself emphasizes a need for more awareness: “I realized the missing piece was public education about the issues these women and girls faced, and the nearly nonexistent legal resources available to them.”

Houston’s proximity to migrants, lawyers, and financial resources made it an ideal location for Tahirih. And the city has responded, Chandler says. “Once people knew, they demonstrated their generosity. Houston is truly a global community.”

She cites a senior legal partner who organized a fundraiser for Tahirih Houston at her own firm, and a doctor who purchased a gynecological facility without request so that Tahirih clients could have pro bono medical examinations that could be used for legal proceedings.

During some weeks, the organization gets 20 to 30 requests for help from female immigrants and others. But Tahirih Houston tries to keep attorney caseloads to between 35 and 75 clients, and therefore accepts on average only three to four additional clients a week.

“It is difficult. We are a close group,” Chandler says.

Tahirih Houston liaises with a complex web of government agencies, including the Department of Justice and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as local and federal law enforcement officials.

“The cases Tahirih takes on are heavy,” Ms. Dillard notes. But “we’ve saved people’s lives, and Anne has the tremendous work ethic that has made it all possible.”

Sentences in sex trafficking case

In one recent case involving a Houston sex trafficking ring, Tahirih Houston worked with the Department of Labor to quantify the value that traffickers earned through the abuse of young women and girls. The case, which was handled by federal prosecutors, resulted in ringleader Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, or “Tencha,” being sentenced to life in prison earlier this year. At least 12 co-defendants also received sentences.

“The handlers convinced the young women that they were in love with them and would care for them, but then ultimately sold them into a family trafficking ring,” Chandler says. Those going after the enterprise caught its “ringleader and closed the illegal operation she was managing on US territory.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is one of the largest sex trafficking cases to be tried in the US that involves both minors and women who were forced to engage in prostitution.

Given that immigration is such a sensitive issue among Americans, it might seem probable that Tahirih Houston has run into controversy. But the organization has no known enemies, Chandler insists.

“What Tahirih Houston does is fight for human rights. People know we are fighting for justice,” she says. But she pauses, as she considers the relatively low profile her group has had. “You never know: With more attention in the media, we may begin to see a few materialize,” she adds.

Lessons from her mother

Chandler’s passion for justice in a broad sense goes back further than the case of the Guatemalan girl. She credits her mother, a literature teacher.

One day when she returned home from school, Chandler recalls, her mom was reading a student paper and looking very depressed. The mother said that a student had written about being sexually molested.

“Then, before you knew it, I had a new brother,” Chandler explains matter-of-factly. “I moved downstairs, since he was a high school student and needed more space. I learned from my mom that when someone is in need, and doesn’t have a place to call home, we as a community can open up and provide a place.”

Years later, when she was working at the immigration clinic, Chandler herself – along with her then husband, Seth Chandler – took in a high-schooler. The girl had nowhere to live that was safe and “didn’t even have a bag of clothes,” Ms. Chandler says.

Realizing the lessons of her mother have come full circle in her own life, a small smile spreads across Chandler’s face. “I’m optimistic about our world,” she laughs.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups supporting women:

Cultural Canvas Thailand generates awareness and volunteer support for the current social issues facing Chiang Mai, Thailand. Take action: Empower single mothers at Wildflower Home.

Uganda Village Project facilitates community health and well-being in rural Uganda through improved education, among other measures. Take action: Teach safe pregnancy and family planning to 25 women.

Global Citizens Network promotes peace, justice, and respect through cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. Take action: Construct a village clinic for women’s health and infant care in Mexico.

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