When I met Jeff Heller during my first week at Duke University in 1974, I had little idea of who I was, where I was going, or even what I wanted to major in. Jeff had it all planned out-he was on his way to law school. But it was clear from the start that he wasn’t like the other pre-law and pre-med students, most of whom were interested mostly in the large incomes those professions promised to provide.
Jeff was a man of principle and remained one through three years at Duke and another three years at Chicago Law School. Yes, he followed the usual post-law school path by getting a job at a high-powered law firm, but it was clear to me that he wouldn’t last long in that environment. He soon left to start up his own practice. Sometimes law firm attrition can be high in particular law sectors as lawyers may feel like they are not being utilized enough or they discover a different law path in the opposite direction, whichever it is, law firms need to be able to connect with their employees, otherwise, they will leave for greener pastures as Jeff did.
“Practice” would perhaps be an exaggeration, because he spent most of his time and efforts for the next three decades working for a pittance, or just as often nothing at all, defending refugees who fled persecution and death. These people arrived in the United States and then found themselves in jail, threatened with deportation, facing an Immigration Service that refused to listen, refused to believe their stories, and refused to provide them with fundamental due process.
With his wife Nancy (another Duke classmate) making enough to support their family comfortably, Jeff went all out to help refugees from every continent and of every creed. Often he put them up in the family home when they had nowhere to live.
Now Jeff is pursuing his cause in a somewhat different way. He’s decided to take a 1,400-mile bike ride from New York to Postville, Iowa, a town that was the site of one of the largest and most inhuman immigrant round up raids in U.S. history.
Via his Ride for Human Rights, Jeff is raising money for Human Rights First, an organization that promotes respect for human rights and the rule of law. Among other things, it funds legal protection for refugees in the U.S.
In Jeff’s words:
Thousands of innocents seeking refuge here are jailed, sometimes for years. Our government dictates who is allowed to work, and who may hire them. Border controls and the impossibility of getting visas trap people in the U.S. when they’d prefer to come and go. Our laws break up families, deprive businesses of customers, and ban noncitizens (even your mother!) from your home without Federal permission.