Anne Chandler is the Director of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston. Before she joined Tahirih in 2009, she was Clinical Professor for the University of Houston Law Center where she served as the Interim Director of the Immigration Law Clinic. Anne has three sons, Ben, Jacob and Alex.
What’s your story, Anne?
First, my family – I have three boys. Ben is 24 and after college he moved back to Houston and is now a CPA. Then I have Joseph in high school and Alex in middle school. I have always enjoyed being active and having fun with them. I coached them in Little League, YMCA soccer and West U soccer. Of course, my two younger ones are now at an age where they don’t even want me near them! You know how it goes, “If you are going to sit on the sidelines, Mom, please be on the end… and be quiet!” So I guess I have a shifting role now, but perhaps I might get that role back when the grandchildren come, so we’ll have to wait!
I came to Houston from Sonoma County in Northern California for law school because the University of Houston and the University of Texas offered a joint Public Health and Law degree. Also Texas had the border with Mexico and I always knew that I wanted to do something cross-border. After I graduated, I stayed on here and met my husband, Seth, who is originally from Houston. We have been married 15 years and he’s a law professor at the University of Houston, as I used to be.
My career has been working in under-privileged legal groups, specifically immigrant refugee populations. That quickly turned into a focus on unaccompanied women and children. I had the opportunity to teach and run an immigration law clinic at the UH Law Center which I did for seven years. We developed an academic focus in working with women who’d been trafficked and with vulnerable children who had been abused, work which enhanced our students’ skills in representing immigrants as they fight deportation. I loved that.
I knew of the Tahirih Justice Centre in Washington DC because we had collaborated on some cases and when Tahirih decided to open a second office in Houston, I decided to leave the Law Center and dive back into the world of representing the most vulnerable immigrants. That happened four years ago and I have not regretted it one bit. It meant learning a lot of new skill sets, such as managing an office and doing fundraising work, but I’ve enjoyed every second.
The Tahirih Board chose Houston because they wanted to have more impact on protecting immigrant women who were fleeing severe forms of violence. Though they were doing a good job in DC, with quality fundraising and representation, they knew from a public policy standpoint on legislation, they would still be speaking from the voices of women only in the DC area. In choosing Houston, they looked at the strength of the legal community because we partner with law firms who take on cases on our behalf. Although we work closely with them, the majority of client time is with these volunteer attorneys. The Board also looked at demographic need, and their ability to raise funds in that city. Although they looked very seriously at Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, Houston rose to the top, mainly because of the demographic need, but also because the outstanding hub of law firms here. Once the Houston decision was made, they wanted to hire someone locally, someone who knew the landscape, and that’s I how came to join the Tahirih family.
In the very early days we only had one social worker and a legal assistant – I didn’t hire another attorney until Year 3 – but then we started getting grants and other support, so now we have four attorneys who liaise with the clients and the volunteer attorneys. Though our attorneys are relatively young, because a lot of our cases have complex legal patterns, both in client management and in having novel legal things to consider, I am always there to support them. Not that I necessarily know the answers immediately, but because of my experience, I can identify and reach out to the networks of people who will know. So I sit in on all the major case acceptance meetings for cases that are heading towards litigation and also if there’s a bigger situation such as a trafficking bust.
We work with all levels of law enforcement, from the Texas Rangers to the FBI and Customs and Border Patrol, the Houston Police Department to the Sherriff’s office. The way that immigration laws work is that in cases of domestic servitude, debt bondage and trafficking, it is pretty critical that an immigrant woman be willing to work with law enforcement if she is not to be deported. But sometimes the women that we work with aren’t quite ready to do that, because of trauma, distress or fear, so we work with the women to get them to the stage where they can work with the law enforcement agencies and rebuild their lives in safety. Sadly, sometimes the law enforcement officers meet with our clients and say that there’s nothing they can do because of a technical aspect of the law. Other times, however, they are already working on the case because our client is only one of many women and indeed, sometimes they will bring a case to us. Many times they’ve already done the investigation and then come to us for legal assistance for the women involved.
Trafficking is one of the types of harm that our clients have faced. One of the more significant, in terms of attorney hours, is a combination of cases where women have fled some atrocious violence abroad and their primary fear is of being returned to their home country. In such cases, we are working with the international refugee definition which was drawn up in the aftermath of World War Two. That definition says that we, as a nation state in the international community, shall protect individuals who have suffered persecution or who face persecution if they are returned home. The way it was written, it protects people from persecution because of their religion, race, nationality, social status, political beliefs or because they belong to a certain social group, but not specifically because of their gender.
In subsequent years, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada set up gender guidelines to the refugee definition, but here in the United States, no guidelines were ever confirmed, despite Janet Reno’s best efforts when she was Attorney General. Therefore our judges literally have nothing to work with except for case law, and that is sporadic, confusing, and dubious at best. It was, in fact, this problem that led originally to the founding of the Tahirih Justice Center.
Layli Miller-Muro, now our Executive Director, handled a case when she was a summer intern during law school. She represented a young lady who was fleeing Togo under threat of an arranged marriage and female genital mutilation. Though her father had always protected her and wanted her to have an education and a career, when he died, the rights and decisions about what would happen to her shifted to an uncle. He was horrified that she hadn’t already been subject to genital circumcision and also that she still wasn’t married. Her mom and sister helped her escape to the United States, but here the immigration officials offered her two options, to get back on the plane or go to jail for a long time. The girl chose to stay and go to jail.
When she appeared in court requesting refugee status and told her story, the judge denied her case, stating that this was a cultural family matter and had nothing to do with the refugee definition. Layli argued that women in certain cultures who defied that culture’s rules by refusing genital mutilation should be construed as a “particular social group”. They launched a big press campaign in DC about female genital mutilation, discussing the horrendous statistics of the psychological and physical damage caused from such mutilation. They also argued that the arranged marriage to a much older man would be tantamount to rape. Ultimately, the higher court found that the young lady from Togo was fleeing persecution on account of her membership in a particular social group of young women of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu Tribe who had not suffered female genital mutilation and who opposed the practice. The girl's name was Fauziya Kassindja and after three years of being in detention in different jails, she was free and new case law was developed based on her fight for justice. She and Layli wrote a book together, Do they hear when you cry? and the proceeds went to establish our Center.
In Houston we also have also dealt with a number of honor killing cases out of Pakistan, Iran and Libya, where a woman has been perceived as defying or shaming her family. We have also represented other women fleeing female genital mutilation, a forced marriage, or severe forms of domestic violence. In cases where the violence occurs within a family relationship, we have to show that there is nowhere a woman is able to go within that country to be safe and that the police and the court system will not protect her. Those are really difficult burdens of evidence to show.
We also protect immigrant women who are living in a violent domestic relationship here in the greater Houston area. For example, a woman might live here with a husband with an immigrant visa, but if she leaves that relationship, her status is gone. So when there is violence in those relationships, it is difficult for a woman to know what to do. But that’s where we can help with getting recognition of her own immigration status and getting her the power to work before she goes into a deportation or custody hearing.
Why do you do what you do?
Our work is heartbreaking on a daily basis, but it feels so good that we are there. I look at the women who come to us and I wonder if I was in that situation, would I have that courage? Probably not. So usually, I am both touched and really motivated to serve. It is their strength that keeps us all doing it. At Tahirih, we have a 99% litigation record which is incredibly satisfying. It’s a great feeling to take a call from a woman and be able to say, “The law protects you and we can help you access that law.”
To watch these incredibly generous pro bono lawyers step up and take each case is also amazing, and I’ve had lawyers come to me and say, “This is why I went to law school! How can I support you more?” The attorneys I work with are incredibly giving and gracious and bright. And of course we also get to work with academic experts all over the world who help us explain to a judge what cultural reasons prevent a woman being safe if she is forced to return to her home country. They too give us their time for free, as do the medical professionals who help us document injuries or give support when the safety net of free medical care breaks down. Every day I have a lot of reasons to be grateful that I am going to work.
What does Houston mean to you?
Houston people are incredibly generous and kind in a way that I haven’t experienced in other places I’ve lived. Whether it’s the heat that makes everyone slow down a little, I don’t know, but it’s a very open city and welcoming to new individuals and to new endeavors. And Houston sucks you in very quickly! I would not leave now, and I can even say that in August!
Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
It would probably be my mother though she passed away at a younger age. She was a theater teacher in a high school in California and she had a lot of spark and a commitment to helping folks around her, and she was persistent. I remember coming home one day and there was a boy sitting at our table who was perhaps 14, and she said, “This is now our new son!” It turned out that he was being beaten at home and he’d written an essay about it, so mom helped him get out of there.
She always taught me, “We don’t have to accept this if we can change it.” For example, I remember as a kid shopping with my mom and she realized that the boys’ tailoring was free but for the girls’ you had to pay, so she made a huge fuss about it. She demanded that alterations to a pair of pants were done for free. By that time, I didn’t even want the pants, I just wanted to get out of there! But there was such integrity within her that I learned about achieving justice for people. She had such a love for the community, it really has influenced me.
What advice would you give to someone new to the law?
Don’t forget about balance. Your career is one thing, but it doesn’t lead to happiness. You’ve got to follow some true caretaking advice and ask yourself how are you going to be part of a larger community, because at least for me I’ve seen what really makes you happy is your family, your community and giving back.
So how to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I’m blessed that at Tahirih we value flexibility in order to have harmony between work and life. So I would say to a newcomer, don’t forget that – family is critical to happiness.
Where is your happy place in Houston?
On the soccer field! I play for various teams in Houston and it’s fun. It’s just a great bunch of friends running around together! Being in a team does something for me.
What is your favorite restaurant?
There are so many to choose from, but I would say Goode Company Barbecue, though we must sit outside and it has to be at least October!
What is your Houston secret?
Houston is so demographically rich, and the Hua Xia Chinese School is one of the many amazing Chinese Mandarin schools in town. Everyone there is incredibly welcoming and friendly, and it offers the most amazing teachers for foreign languages. I first found Hua Xia when Joseph and Alex were attending extended day at their elementary school. A teacher came in from Hua Xia to teach them Mandarin, but he disguised it as teaching them origami and my boys both loved it and the teacher. So when he left, they demanded to follow him to Hua Xia so they could continue to learn from him. I tried to learn Chinese too, but I was really bad!
If you could change one thing about Houston…
We have a fantastic community here in Braes Heights – our ball fields, our YMCA, our library and our great elementary and middle schools. But I’d love there to be a way that we could extend some resources to help other communities to have that same cohesion. We have a very strong neighborhood association and we have a strong Constable so the neighborhood’s safe. If I don’t get home on time and my kids are in the house, I’m not worried. A lot of other communities are almost there, but I wish we could recreate all those essential elements in many more neighborhoods in the city, in particular the type of neighborhoods that my clients come from, where they are too scared to let their kids leave their apartment building.
For more information about the work Anne and her team do at the Tahirih Justice Center, visit www.tahirih.org.
Do they hear when you cry? by Layli Miller-Muro and Fauziya Kassindja is published by Delacorte Press (1998)