Staff Highlight: Joanne Lee

Joanne Lee is a staff attorney fellow in GLS’s immigration unit. She works with immigrants that have been victims of domestic violence. There’s a Maya Angelou poster in the corner of her room, Still, I Rise written in script on white paper, a reminder of her love for literature. Joanne is the best of what a legal aid lawyer is; kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and exceptionally intelligent. She is well respected by her coworkers and her clients.

She didn’t always know she wanted to be a lawyer, though.

Joanne grew up in Korea, daughter to parents with advanced degrees, good jobs, and a passion for giving back to the community. The giving spirit they demonstrated left an impact. Eventually, she and her family immigrated to Canada. It was a big change, and sometimes a difficult one. She didn’t speak English and struggled to communicate. Nobody looked like her. She faced discrimination for the first time in her life, and began to realize that many others were experiencing this same kind of discrimination in other sectors of society.

In her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, Joanne followed her passion for literature and majored in English, with a focus on postcolonial literature and Asian American literature. There she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, won the Margaret Goodwin Meacham award for distinguished work in the English Department, and graduated with honors. She wanted to continue studying English literature because of her love of reading, but her heart told her she needed to give back in a more tangible way. That’s when she decided to attend law school.

Her first semester at Yale Law School wasn’t the easiest – she felt confined by the secluded and theoretical nature of academia and wanted to get out into the real world to help people directly. That’s when she joined the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), which provides remote legal assistance for mothers and children seeking asylum at the southern border.

Asylum-seeking families were being detained after crossing the border long before Trump’s family-separation policies brought spotlight to these inhumane practices. Even then there was an overwhelming need for legal assistance for these families, who were being detained in remote locations and who often could not afford legal representation. The mothers Joanne worked with were separated from their husbands and placed in “baby jails” with their children. Many were fleeing horrific violence in Central America, but because of the language barrier, effects of trauma, and lack of legal representation, they could not always describe how dire their situations were or how those situations might translate into a legal asylum claim. Joanne was one of the law students that helped asylum seekers formulate legal arguments so that they could be released from detention and be allowed to seek asylum in the United States. After her first family was released from detention, she knew she was doing what she was meant to do.

Joanne continued to work with ASAP throughout law school, eventually serving as co-president. Based on her experiences, she authored a paper, Interviewing Refugee Children: Theory, Policy, and Practices with Traumatized Asylum Seekers, which was published in Yale Journal of Law & Feminism in 2018.

While Joanne was studying at Yale, her husband, whom she had met in undergraduate school, was working as a band director in St. Petersburg. One summer, she decided to intern at GLS so they could be closer together, and she found she adored the work culture and staff. She was also impressed by the scope of work to be done in the Tampa Bay area, and felt she was meeting a critical need. After graduating with several awards and distinctions, she obtained a fellowship from Yale to become a staff attorney fellow here. Next year, we’re excited to welcome her as a full-time staff member. We can’t wait to see how her passion for social justice continues to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.