The Transient Lawyer
Melanie Gleason has given up almost everything to serve underserved populations overlooked by the American legal system
“I had this idea of going to different places that need help. Places that just don’t have access to lawyers.” -Melanie Gleason
A typical attorney probably has an office where they work from. A typical attorney probably has an apartment or house that they go home to after a long day of lawyering. A typical attorney probably has an intense focus on maximizing their billable hours.
But Melanie Gleason is not your typical attorney. She works from wherever she’s needed, she travels the country in her Smart Car and she hasn’t charged her clients a cent.
When I spoke to Melanie earlier this year, she was working out of a migrant family detention center in Karnes City, Texas, assisting mothers and children navigate the byzantine migrant asylum process. Many of them are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, where they’re fleeing the very high rates of gang violence — and formally seeking asylum in the United States. While there, she’s helped hundreds of women through the first stages of the long process, which is often made that much more difficult and complex as the husbands are sent to other facilities.
“I’ve worked with clients in Texas where the dads are in California or New Jersey. It’s a real mess.”
Before this she was in the California’s Central Valley, fighting for migrant farmworkers who weren’t receiving their full due process rights with California Rural Legal Assistance. There she saw that, “battles must be fought to protect farmworkers from the harmful side effects of being continuously exposed to pesticides; working long hours in 105+ degree temperatures; and ensuring sanitary and safe working conditions.” She also saw how much attorneys were in short supply in rural areas to address these issues. It was a real eye-opener.
After that she journeyed north to Tacoma, Washington, with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to work with detainees — most without a criminal record — being indefinitely held in a federal immigration detention center. This was her first exposure to one of these facilities, and it was eye-opening to say the least. In a highly-recommended blog post, she wrote, “I have worked in some trauma-impacted communities, but the detention center was another level of trauma I have not yet been exposed to.” This stuck with her.
Soon after, she was working with members of the Blackfeet tribe in northern Montana who had been navigating a tricky legal system. And while helping out the only attorney in a 100-mile radius on a complex case involving the tribe suing the federal government, she saw firsthand the realities facing this underserved community. It was another data point for Melanie.
After that she was in Tucson, where, among other cases, she worked with a Honduran woman seeking asylum. As Melanie wrote on her blog:
“She told me firsthand about how after saving enough money to open her own food stand, she refused to pay a local gang money, and a couple weeks later on her birthday, they burned her stand down. After going to the police who told her nothing could be done bc there were no witnesses, she started selling her food on the streets again — and the local gang sent several men to beat and rape her. She told me that if another woman hadn’t found her on the street, she was certain she was going to die. She was also worried that her young son would be recruited into the local gang — as so many already were. There are thousands of women and children fleeing Central America with variations of this story.”
It was in Tucson that she made the decision to go all-in on immigrant justice.
Then came Texas. She told me that she’d soon be heading to another immigration detention flashpoint in the midwest, where she’s heard that many of these women are being transferred. Being that she’s often one of the only volunteer attorneys working in Karnes City, Melanie suspected that she’ll be needed there.
But besides a desire to help those in need, what really brought this impressive Missouri-born and Massachusetts-bred individual to these far-flung outposts? The journey began after graduating from UT-Austin when she started teaching special education in South Central LA before becoming a community organizer, and she began recognizing a pattern of recurring social issues that really required long-term, legal solutions to be truly fixed.
“I kept seeing that there were both individual and systemic issues that really needed immediate legal repercussions or relief.”
Her organizing work showed her that legal help was really the way to make an immediate positive impact in people’s lives. And coupled with her desire to always see more than what was in her immediate view, a great strategy was formed.
“In America, all of us can tend to get in our silo or bubble, and they’re these vertical silos that don’t necessarily intersect with each other. I really wanted to see what some of these social justice areas looked in areas that I’ve never been to before.”
“I really get excited about the concept of being a lawyer for the people funded by the people. I knew that individual grassroots donations was going to be the primary way that I was going to try to launch this project.”
And fundraise she did, as she quickly had over $20,000 in the bank to get her anywhere her skills were needed. It wasn’t hard to convince donors about why this was so important.
She continued to crowdfund for the project as she traversed the country, helping those without other legal options along the way.
But Melanie isn’t stopping there. While she knows that there are people all across the US that need her services, she also know that she can’t be on the road forever — and that she needs to scale to reach more of those that require her assistance. And that’s why she’s expanded the scope of her project to start a Virtual Law Office — to handle more of these cases remotely.
She also knows that real change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To this end, she’s planning to incorporate an investigative journalism aspect into her work so that these stories and the general situation facing so many people trying to get into the country — that so many people are unaware of — are being told. And to do this, Melanie needs more money. And that’s where you can help.
Melanie just celebrated a year of Attorney on the Move while in Chicago working with the National Immigrant Justice Center. And after Chicago, who knows where she’ll be? But what we do know is that wherever she is she’ll be giving voice to the voiceless and fighting for justice for those who need it.
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