By Rebecca Sharpless, author of Shackled: 92 Refugees Imprisoned on ICE Air

My new book Shackled recounts the harrowing real-life experiences of 92 individuals abused during a failed deportation flight to Somalia. Through the eyes of Sa’id Janale and Abdulahi Hassan, the book exposes the grim realities of contemporary deportation practices and profound injustices within our immigration adjudication system.  

One of the first questions readers often ask me about the book is why I chose not to include myself, as the lead lawyer for the group of 92, as a character in the story. At the encouragement of reviewers, I attempted to write myself in early on. First-person narratives place the author and reader in the middle of the action, lending immediacy and authenticity to the account. But in the end, I chose not to be a character. My decision, as I state in the book’s acknowledgments, was “political rather than literary.” I wanted to shift the reader’s focus to the true protagonists—the individuals shackled on the ICE Air flight. The spotlight should not be on lawyers, who all too often occupy center stage.  

My hope is that lawyers and law students will engage with my book not only for its unflinching portrayal of immigration detention and deportation but also for the insights it offers on the lawyer-client relationship. We, as legal practitioners, are not the heroes of our clients’ stories. Nor are we the sole agents of change. Instead, our role lies in collaborating with the genuine heroes and catalysts for change—the individuals and groups we represent. Although our contribution to leveraging the law for justice and societal transformation is crucial, our true value is our commitment to being guided by those we represent, working in their service.  

The emergency advocacy depicted in Shackled at times veered from this principle. Because we had to hastily draft and file a class-action lawsuit within a weekend, we consulted only a third of the flight’s passengers. Understandably, some passengers chose not to participate, having already endured months or even years in immigration detention, reluctant to further risk their lives on a legal gamble. I often think about how we could have acted differently—both in deciding whether to intervene and in the manner of our intervention. Yet, social justice lawyers must grapple with less-than-ideal solutions and time-sensitive and challenging situations.  

Shackled provides a window into the intricate dynamics between lawyers and those seeking justice. It’s a reminder to progressive lawyers that we can still act, even if our actions are imperfectly guided by the voices of the people and communities we serve. Writing this book helped me reflect on my role as a lawyer. I hope reading it does the same for others.