When they sensed trouble, Pedro Marín Álvarez and Velveth Román Girón met with an immigration lawyer near their Lancaster home.
And then another. And another.
None offered hope that the undocumented couple could stay in the United States to care for their young American-citizen sons, both of whom need continuing treatment for serious medical problems.
The devoutly Christian couple prayed to God to place the right person in front of them. That’s when someone mentioned a Conshohocken immigration attorney, Audrey Allen.
A miracle? Or simply good fortune? Either way, it would be life-changing for the couple.
Allen made a case to federal immigration authorities that the family should be granted “deferred action,” a temporary exemption that would allow them to stay and work in this country so their children could be treated — and the government agreed.
“The law is a really powerful tool,” Allen, 41, said in an interview. “And I see myself as someone who is helping vulnerable people.”
As a lawyer, Allen is committed, thorough, and nothing if not fierce, armed with a puncher’s reflexes in an immigration system that more and more has become an us-vs.-them dogfight. Today, often working pro bono, she represents a dozen families in fraught medical and legal situations like the Álvarezes, helping lead the local contingent in the national struggle for the full, fair restoration of deferred action, a small humanitarian program targeted by the Trump administration.
Unlike many other lawyers, she also has hard-learned, firsthand knowledge of what it’s like for parents not to know if their child will live or die.
Her son, Teddy, was 4 months old when he fell ill and was rushed from the emergency room at Bryn Mawr Hospital to the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Her baby was diagnosed with infant botulism, so rare it occurs in only about 150 cases a year in this country. It can happen when infants ingest certain types of spores, creating a toxin that blocks the nerve endings’ ability to signal the linked muscle.
Teddy recovered with the help of a special medicine flown in from California.
“I don’t compare my circumstance to my clients, whose kids get a leukemia diagnosis, but I know what it’s like to be fearful of your child living or not,” Allen said. “He was really, really ill, and we didn’t know what was wrong.”
Many deferred-action cases around the country involve children with leukemia, other cancers, cystic fibrosis, or other life-threatening illnesses.
For decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations commonly granted deferments, recognizing that care in the American medical system was crucial to saving lives and that sending sick children to developing countries could seal their deaths.
In mid-August, with no public notice, the Trump administration upended that convention, informing families that deferred-action applications were no longer being accepted. Many were told they had 33 days to leave the country or face deportation.
After an uproar from medical professionals, community advocates, and elected officials, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced in September that it would resume processing applications.
Lawyers and immigration advocates point out that acceptance does not mean approval, so futures still hang in the balance. For instance, the Álvarez family’s grant of deferred action expires Aug. 1, 2020, and they’ll need to reapply near that date.
They and others depend on Allen. And she feels that weight.
Who is she?
“A consistent, persistent, and insightful advocate for people in some of the most difficult situations,” said Brennan Gian-Grasso, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “She leads with her heart and is able to break down a lot of the barriers that the current administration has put up for humanitarian relief.”
Growing up in Cherry Hill, Allen knew what she didn’t want to be: a lawyer. She was interested in social justice and languages and exploring the world.
She was a cheerleader at Cherry Hill East High School. Captain of the swim team. A lifeguard at Sea Isle City. Her mother taught kindergarten; her father was one in a long family line of lawyers.
Ultimately, though, the law beckoned — a means to gather her myriad interests into one. She graduated from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and then from Rutgers Law School in 2004.
The next year, she moved to South Africa, where she worked for the first black female judge to serve on the Constitutional Court, the highest in the land.
Allen’s first job as an immigration lawyer was at a Miami practice run by a pro-Castro Cuban. She left Florida for a Philadelphia law firm devoted to a single client, Deloitte, the giant, multinational accounting and professional services company. In 2009, she set out on her own.
She speaks fluent Spanish. Loves mystery novels. She was a marathon runner until last year, when she underwent knee surgery after tearing her meniscus doing yoga.
Allen was hospitalized with meningitis at age 8, suffered a mini-stroke while studying for the bar exam at 27, and months after that underwent surgery to fix a hole in her heart.
It taught her not to waste time.
Her one brush with a celebrity client? She helped Danny Watkins get a visa — he was born in Canada — so he could play for the Eagles.
These days, Allen’s work for corporate clients enables her to represent migrants pro bono. She and her husband live in Berwyn with their sons, Jake, 3, and Teddy, now 7 and fully healthy.
Like other immigration lawyers, she works in a world that has shifted dramatically since Trump’s inauguration. The administration has ramped up enforcement and works to cut virtually all forms of immigration. That includes forcing asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico, lowering quotas on refugees, and trying to raise qualifications for newcomers to all-but-impossible standards, such as requiring migrants to prove they can obtain health insurance before being issued a visa.
“I’m seeing things I’m completely blown away by, week after week,” Allen said. “I think most Americans have no idea about immigration law. It’s very easy to say you don’t want people coming in this country and they’re doing this or that, but most people have no idea how hard it is to [come and stay here].”
Her work on deferred-action cases began after she was introduced to the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, which provides free, quality legal aid to low-income area residents. The organization started a medical-legal partnership, and Allen volunteered. Now, pro bono cases are often referred to her directly from St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
“There are a lot of [citizens] in tough situations in the United States. I’m not blind to that,” Allen said. “But compared to situations I see my clients coming from, we’re very fortunate. Most of the world would still do anything to get here.”
Marín Álvarez, 32, crossed the border from Mexico in 2003, while Román Girón, 36, came here from Guatemala two years later. Both their children were born in America, and both are autistic.
Kevin, 5, doesn’t speak. He needs assistance to eat and requires hearing aids and support from orthotic devices to help him walk. He suffers from a rare disorder called agenesis of corpus callosum, in which the fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain are either missing or only partially intact. His older brother, Luis, 12, also has numerous health problems.
Technically, only the parents are at risk of deportation, since the boys are citizens. But it’s unclear how the children could survive without the support of their mother and father.
Román Girón recalled how she left an initial voicemail message on Allen’s office phone — and was surprised when the lawyer herself called back 30 minutes later.
“God put her in our path,” she said. “I’m sure God sent her to me.”