Thirty Years Before the Mast

(With a nod to Richard H. Dana, Jr., 1815-1882)

Joey impersonating Jeffrey – badly. What’s with the handlebar mustache?

In 1983, Jeffrey was a bankruptcy lawyer at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. It was honorable work. It paid very well.

But Jeffrey doesn’t find law per se particularly interesting. To him, law is a tool. He didn’t much care to use that tool for corporate clients.

Enter the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, now called Human Rights First.

In 1982, the Lawyers Committee’s Arthur Helton convinced Federal District Judge Eugene P. Spellman to release 1800 Haitian boat people from Florida immigration jails on the promise that Arthur would find them volunteer lawyers. Weil, Gotshal, invited young associates to take Haitian cases at the firm’s expense. (Remember that when next you condemn fat cats.)

Jeffrey attended Arthur’s asylum training session in spring 1983 – thirty years ago. Then Jeffrey took an asylum case. When he switched firms, he took the case with him.

In 1984, Jeffrey’s client was the second of the 500 local “Spellman Haitians” to win asylum.

Jeffrey took another case. Then another. At the end of 1985, Jeffrey quit the big firm and opened his own office, focusing on asylum cases. Arthur sent him some interesting clients, among them refugee lawyers, diplomats, a famous author and a movie star.

Arthur left the Lawyers Committee to found the Forced Migration Project at the Open Society Institute, and later went to the Council on Foreign Relations. He was at the UN compound in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, for a meeting with UN officials, when he was murdered in a terrorist bombing that killed 22 of the best friends Iraqis ever had.

Jeffrey has suffered nothing so tragic or dramatic. He has been a bit player. And somehow the great migration dramas that shaped Jeffrey’s career and killed Arthur and crushed countless millions of other innocents will put us on a tricycle headed to Florida next week.

It’s hard to grasp. Sometimes we feel, like the nursery rhyme says, “life is but a dream.”

1 thought on “Thirty Years Before the Mast

  1. Jeffrey is not a bit player. He’s a hero winning the hearts and minds of people one at a time. Pssst…Joey, the mustache goes under the nose.


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