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Refugees From The Law

The weeping Salvadoran woman recounting the bloody deaths of her relatives was most definitely not the typical corporate client who frequents Lewis & Roca's tony law offices at 100 West Washington.

But on this particular day several months ago, an offbeat softhearted 35-year-old member of the firm named Chris Brelje offered free legal advice to the shell-shocked human being who had come to see him.

And when the woman explained how she hid under the bed in her family's home while a death squad butchered her relatives, Chris Brelje actually teared up.

"Here we were, crying as we sat among all these stacks of files for lease disputes and contract problems," he recalls. "That was the turning point for me. That's when I decided I was going to ask the firm if I could do more for these people."

Being the quirky fellow that he is--he claims he became a lawyer because he wanted to help people--Brelje asked his employers to give him a twelve-month sabbatical and pay his $60,000 per year salary. His bosses agreed, and two months ago he started the Florence Asylum Project.

In a nutshell, the project offers free legal advice from Chris Brelje to hundreds of Central American immigrants. These folks previously had little, if any, access to lawyers because they entered Arizona illegally, were caught by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and ended up being warehoused in a special wing of the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Folks in the adjoining prison buildings might be murderers and rapists, but many of these Central Americans in Florence have committed only one crime--they've entered the country illegally.

Brelje says many Central Americans fear they'll be persecuted if they're shuttled back to their countries. That means they have a chance at winning political asylum--and legal status--in the United States.

"People needed to have someone explain to them that the law of the United States includes protection for people who are afraid to return home because of persecution," he says. "Before the project, these people only had representation if lawyers from Phoenix happened to drive down to help."

This atypical barrister now spends much of his life driving his rickety 1966 GMC flatbed between his small adobe home in Phoenix and a makeshift office in Florence. Once he makes it to Florence, he represents 55 people each week in federal immigration court, interviews dozens of others, and refers hundreds to a roster of about 160 volunteer lawyers in Phoenix and Tucson. "This is very satisfying to me," Brelje says.

On any given day he may dig into his own pocket to post the $500 bail for a Honduran or Guatemalan or Salvadoran who happens to ask him for the dough to get out of jail.

Of course, not every Central American comes to the United States to escape persecution. If you live in Guatemala and earn about $600 a year, even terrible U.S. wages look pretty good.

Brelje understands that many United States citizens aren't thrilled with Central American competition in the workplace. They'd rather the unskilled masses from Central America stayed home, regardless of the conditions there.

"I've got some responses for those people," he says. "One response is that there are not enough people to do the farmworker jobs because American citizens won't do them. But I've got a couple of clients who have done nothing their entire life but chop lettuce, cut asparagus and pick oranges. And that's all they want to do. Why shouldn't they stay? "Another response is that a lot Central Americans really don't want to be here forever . . . They want to return to their families. Guatemalans, especially, are very honest. They will look you right in the eye and say they are only here to work."

Brelje also understands that the appalling poverty and bloody civil wars in Central America don't seem real to most Americans. "I didn't believe it either, at first," he says, recalling that ten years ago he was skeptical when a nun told him of the horrors of the Salvadoran civil war. "You read about the massacres in the newspapers, but it really doesn't hit home until you've got somebody right in front of you who's lived it . . . until you have people confirm it time after time.

"This stuff really does happen, though. And it's extremely scary."

"Here we were, crying as we sat among all these stacks of files for lease disputes and contract problems."