Access to Justice

Exploring the work of Ford Motor Company’s general counsel and his efforts to protect immigrant women

Bradley Gayton’s phone rings often. There are congratulatory calls when a deal he’s helped with has been made. Nevertheless, one of the most gratifying calls the general counsel of Ford Motor Company has received lately was from one of the clients he helped obtain a visa to stay in the United States as part of his pro bono work with the Michigan Immigration Rights Center.

“After she received the visa she was able to work, get her driver’s license, and get permission for her children to stay here as well,” he says. “She called to tell me how the kids are doing. Two are in college and one is in high school. She is working on her GED now, and she’s applying for a green card.”

The U visa serves an extremely vulnerable population—mostly female victims of domestic violence and human trafficking operations who are in the country on a temporary visa. If the woman entered the country illegally, forgiveness can also be granted through a waiver. The visa allows the women to extend their stay in the United States for four years. After the third year, beneficiaries of the program are allowed to apply for permanent residency through a green card. The program gives the women permission to work in the country, and to obtain visas for family members as well. The visa can open a path to eventual citizenship.

Year Started: 2008

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center represents clients facing barriers in realizing their rights and accessing services because of their immigration status. The center also does legal analysis on policies that create difficulties for the immigrant community. The focus is on issues affecting immigrant children.

Congress created the U nonimmigrant visa with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (including the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act) in October 2000. The legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens, and other crimes while, at the same time, offering protection to victims of such crimes. The legislation also helps law enforcement agencies to better serve victims of crimes.

To receive one of these visas, an applicant has to meet three requirements: she has been a victim of a crime that happened in the United States, she has been helpful to law enforcement in prosecuting the crime, and the crime hurt her physically or mentally.

The visa application is free, but the government strongly advises the women to have a lawyer to work through the application’s requirements and intricacies. That’s where Gayton comes in. Since the stakes are high for these victims, having a volunteer attorney prepare the visa application is crucial. A poorly prepared application can result in a victim not receiving the relief they are entitled to. 

Gayton says that he came to this work out of a lifelong desire to help underprivileged women. “I’m the father of three daughters,” he says. “Through the process of raising them with my wife, I became so aware of the challenges they face. As they got older, and I had more time to allocate to volunteer work, I focused on organizations that were impacting the lives of women and girls.”

Most of the women Gayton has helped come from Latin America. He’s noticed that when the company provides a list of visa clients, the women who don’t speak English are less likely to be picked up by the lawyers. A boon for Gayton is his executive assistant, who speaks fluent Spanish, so he has been able to take many of these cases that might otherwise languish.

“We could rake leaves and plant flowers, but we are uniquely positioned to provide people with access to justice.”

Ford Motor places a strong focus on corporate citizenship.  When Gayton came to the company as a clerk in 1991, a strong pro bono program was already in place, but he’s seen it grow even more over the years as he’s climbed the ladder to higher positions. All employees are encouraged to spend at least sixteen hours each year on volunteer activities, in areas that they have a particular expertise. Gayton asks for thirty hours from his team.

“We believe that the privilege of practicing law comes with a responsibility to give back,” Gayton says. “We could rake leaves and plant flowers, but we are uniquely positioned to provide people with access to justice.”

The company offers at least eight pro bono clinics annually, covering such areas as expungement of criminal records, food stamp eligibility assistance, and helping veterans with disability and pension benefits. There are also clinics designed to help the elderly to prepare wills, and to assist with tax filing and estate planning for first responders and their families. Outside of the clinic setting, Ford lawyers have been involved in individual immigration, asylum, domestic violence protection, and nonprofit advice matters.

Year Started: 2012

The center partners with community, business, and faith-based organizations to host free community workshops and walk-in clinics in the city for people interested in citizenship. The program is meant to encourage eligible permanent residents to apply for full citizenship.

Ford has created initiatives to expand its pro bono culture outside of the United States and into its international markets. That can be tricky, because in some countries, such as Brazil, pro bono work was prohibited until June 2014. Gayton’s department worked with local law firms and nongovernmental organizations to change those regulations and put infrastructure in place that will allow for more direct representation of clients. Since June 2014, pro bono has been permitted on behalf of individuals, except for electoral or political matters. The legal office, in cooperation with local law firms, has given lectures on Internet laws, consumer, labor, and criminal matters.

Gayton says that the work he does with an applicant’s U visa can stretch out as long as eighteen months. Part of that is because there are only a limited number of the visas granted every year. The government often comes back with inquiries once an application is made, so there can be a lot of waiting. It isn’t over in an afternoon by a long shot, but for Gayton it’s more than worth it. “It’s just great to be able to be a part of enhancing people’s lives,” he says.