Lisa Brodyaga, Crusading Lawyer for Immigrants’ Rights, Dies at 81

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She became a people leader representing asylum seekers fleeing unit successful Central America, mounting up store successful the Rio Grande Valley and gathering a refuge camp.

Lisa Brodyaga, successful  an undated photo, extracurricular  her trailer location  astatine  a refuge campy  she founded successful  Texas adjacent   the Mexican border. She represented asylum seekers pro bono for her full  career. 
Credit...via Jan Underwood

Jan. 4, 2022Updated 7:13 p.m. ET

As leftist gyration and U.S.-backed counter-insurgencies dispersed done El Salvador and Guatemala successful the aboriginal 1980s, Central America became awash successful bloodshed, sending refugees fleeing to the United States borderline successful hopes of a caller life.

When they got there, a combative migration lawyer named Lisa Brodyaga, who had lone precocious passed the Texas barroom exam, was waiting.

She was moving Proyecto Libertad, a pro bono ineligible inaugural successful Texas representing asylum seekers, and by the decade’s extremity she had helped support thousands successful court. She went connected to gain a reputation arsenic a litigious thorn successful the broadside of national borderline enforcement agencies for the adjacent 40 years.

“Lisa was a person successful a full question of lawyers who decided to attack the practice of immigrants with a civilian rights consciousness,” said Susan Gzesh, an migrant rights adept who teaches astatine the University of Chicago. “She helped firmly found that undocumented asylum seekers person rights nether our Bill of Rights. She taught migration lawyers to not beryllium acrophobic to spell into national courts.”

Ms. Brodyaga (pronounced brod-YA-ga) died connected Oct. 28 astatine her location astatine a refuge campy she founded adjacent San Benito, Texas. She was 81. The origin was lung cancer, her son, Paul Mockett Jr., said. Her decease was not wide reported astatine the time.


Credit...via Jan Underwood

Wearing her hairsbreadth successful a agelong azygous braid down her back, Ms. Brodyaga was known to amusement up astatine tribunal wearing sandals oregon cowboy boots. If the national prosecutors she faced smirked astatine first, it was due to the fact that they were uninitiated. By luncheon interruption they were often stepping extracurricular to cod themselves aft the verbal barrage Ms. Brodyaga had directed astatine them successful defence of her client.

“I similar to beryllium underestimated,” she erstwhile told instrumentality students astatine the University of Miami. “I similar to person radical think, ‘She’s conscionable a hick lawyer.’” She added: “Go ahead, I situation you. Dismiss me.”

In the mid-1980s, arsenic warfare raged successful El Salvador, members of the autarkic Human Rights Commission of El Salvador were imprisoned by the country’s government, and Ms. Brodyaga traveled determination to cheque connected their condition.

During her enactment she assisted them with a study they were penning astir the torture of governmental prisoners astatine the prison, and she helped smuggle it backmost to the United States. Then she passed it disconnected to the journalist Ron Ridenhour, who arsenic a serviceman had exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. He published the findings successful The San Francisco Examiner.

Ms. Brodyaga opened her camp, the Refugio del Rio Grande, successful 1986. She had bought the onshore — a 45-acre parcel successful the Rio Grande Valley — and transformed it into a self-sustaining community, with its ain aesculapian clinic, ineligible session and dormitories. Refugees grew fruits and vegetables portion she worked connected their cases in her cluttered trailer.


Credit...via Jan Underwood

“It is simply a exile campy which often has nary refugees,” she wrote successful 1998. “It is an enactment of permanent, peaceful absorption which is studiously ignored by the precise powers we resist. Its value lies chiefly successful its precise existence.”

Ms. Brodyaga became thing of a people leader successful the Valley’s ineligible assemblage for taking connected pro bono cases for the entirety of her career, earning wealth from occasional paying cases. But earlier she became a crusading migration lawyer, she was a young pistillate trying to marque consciousness of America’s work to the world, and of her own.

“Lisa had a societal justness position from the beginning,” said Mary Howell, a civilian rights lawyer and a longtime friend. “She came of property during the Vietnam War era. She wondered, ‘What does it mean to beryllium an American?’ She questioned our authorities and our democracy.”

“I deliberation that’s what sent her down a way antithetic from the 1 of accepted lawyering,” Ms. Howell added. “Lisa was an activistic lawyer, and proudly so.”


Credit...via Jan Underwood

Gail Elisabeth Smith was calved connected Sept. 21, 1940, successful Urbana, Ill., to Guy and Jean (Randall) Smith. Her begetter was a noted ungraded scientist, her parent a homemaker. Calling herself Lisa, from her mediate name, she grew up connected a workplace and often fell into mischief.

“When my parent was 12 oregon so, she saw a Norman Rockwell drafting successful The Saturday Evening Post that she loved for the remainder of her life,” her lad said. “It’s a representation of a miss with a achromatic oculus astatine schoolhouse sitting connected a seat adjacent the principal’s office. She got into a fight, astir apt with a boy, and the main is talking with her teacher.

“But this miss has a large grin connected her face. She doesn’t attraction that she’s successful occupation due to the fact that she knows that she was successful the right. My parent ever saw herself successful that girl.”

In her youth, Ms. Brodyaga threw herself into the countercultural tides of the 1960s and ’70s.

She helped enactment the Black Panthers successful New York and lived successful a commune successful California. During a enactment successful Czechoslovakia, erstwhile she was dragged into an anti-Soviet thoroughfare protest, idiosyncratic enactment a emblem into her hand, and an representation of her brandishing it appeared each implicit the news. She besides changed her past sanction to Brodyaga, which means “wanderer” successful Russian.

After graduating with a B.A. from George Washington University successful 1968, she earned her instrumentality grade from the Catholic University of America successful Washington successful 1974. She took up a career successful migration instrumentality successful the precocious 1970s, moving to Texas aft increasing incensed astir the migrant concern processing astatine the border. A fewer years aboriginal she met Pio Celestino, an migration activistic who aboriginal became her romanticist partner, and they started moving the Refugio together.

In summation to her son, Ms. Brodyaga is survived by a sister, Ann Degler; 3 brothers, Randall, Guy Jr. and Arthur; and 5 grandchildren. A matrimony to Paul Mockett ended successful divorcement successful 1962. In the mid-1970s, Ms. Brodyaga adopted a Vietnamese child, whom she named Linh and who went missing successful astir 2000.

Ms. Brodyaga grew aged connected the Refugio, kept institution by dogs, llamas and an emu named Jorge. Law students who made pilgrimages to the campy received her teachings arsenic she planted trees and fed chickens.

She was diagnosed with crab successful 2020 but continued to support a dense caseload.

“She was penning briefs until the precise end,” Paul Mockett Jr. said. “I would accidental it was idiosyncratic for her. She believed successful each lawsuit she worked on.” He added, “She wanted to spot justness served.”

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