Pro Bono Net would like to recognize the thousands of volunteer lawyers who make a huge difference for those in need and the incredibly important work of pro bono volunteers in building our capacity to meet the vast unmet need for civil legal services. This year we have been celebrating National Pro Bono Week by focusing on disaster resiliency. Today we are highlighting additional pro bono work around the country, and sharing resources to help volunteer attorneys get started.
Earlier this year, the separation of families at the boarder headlined news outlets everywhere. Now? Not so much. While headlines in the US may have moved on, many families are still separated and immigrant parents are still detained in more than 200 immigrant prisons and jails in the U.S.
According to recent numbers, more than 4,000 parents and children were separated at the US-Mexico border between May 5, 2018 and June 9, 2018 as part of earlier “no tolerance” policy under the current administration. While efforts to reunite families have begun, thousands of parents and children still face uphill legal battles for reunification and relief.
Betty Balli Torres, a board member of Pro Bono Net, and Executive Director of Texas Access to Justice Foundation, visited a detention facility in Conroe, Texas, on an information gathering visit with other industry professionals. She was kind enough to share her experience with us.
Torres and other industry professionals were taken on a one-hour tour through the facility and were provided a few minutes to speak with some of the women in detention. In Torres’ group there were approximately 10 women who elected to meet with them. In her words, here was her reaction to the facilities:
“They spend 23 hours in that kind of dorm facility and they have one hour of outside time and it really was depressing. And depressing isn’t even the right word, it’s heartbreaking and you could see why someone would be in bed with the covers over their head, no privacy, you’re in a prison.”
Of the approximately ten women they were able to speak to, only one had a lawyer to help her with her situation. Unfortunately, this is normal for those in detention. Facilities are often nowhere near legal resources and volunteers need to travel long distances to speak in person with their clients.
One of the women Torres spoke to shared her story of separation. She arrived at the border in Laredo and she was separated from her four years old, who was taken away to New York, while she was sent to Conroe, Texas. She hadn’t seen her child in months. Another woman shared that she had already signed a self-deportation agreement because she didn’t have an attorney and was desperate to be reunited with her child.
“That’s heartbreaking to give up any and all rights you have because basically your child is being held hostage, at least it feels like that to you, right? You don’t know if you’re going to see your baby, you don’t know if and when. You don’t get to touch them, you don’t get to feel them. You don’t get to console them which has got to be – it’s the worst moment of your life and the worst moment of that child’s life.”
Torres’ biggest impression of her visit was that of heartbreak.
“You come to this country, you’ve gone to the border trying to seek political asylum and now there you are in a prison and in some instances, women have been separated from their children, and it was heartbreaking.”
Crisis and Lawyer’s Responses
As soon as the crisis began, volunteer lawyers across the country came out in droves to try to help and coordination became a real challenge. Volunteers need to be trained and placed where they can do the most good. Online tools, trainings, resources for attorneys, like the ones Pro Bono Net offers, help tremendously, but they cannot replace pro bono coordinators and placement specialists.
“The need, honestly, is for immigration lawyers who speak Spanish, but that universe is finite and already doing so much of the heavy lifting. It’s a challenge for a volunteer who doesn’t have any experience and doesn’t speak any of the languages who wants to help…But, there is a place for that volunteer, who can be trained and mentored…The matching piece is an important piece.”
The infrastructure for managing volunteers must be in place in order to make sure everything runs smoothly, but having funding to hire more full time attorneys can make a world of difference as well. Resources are needed at the fundamental level for pro bono coordinators and full time attorneys to continue this work over the long term.
Lawyers in this situation face an emotional toll due to working with desperate parents and extremely young children.
“I was only there for an hour, and I will never be the same. I cannot imagine, day after day, hour after hour, doing this kind of work and talking to those kids.”
“The system is much more challenging than it ever has ever been. On top of the emotional turmoil, you add the systemic problems. This is resource intensive.” There are resources for attorneys who are facing personal challenges due to the emotional toll of this work. Counselors and other professionals have been brought in to provide support, but working with desperate parents and children is a major challenge.
Pro Bono Net would like to extend our gratitude to the attorneys around the country working to ensure access to justice for people who cannot afford it on their own. These legal aid organizations and volunteer attorneys are truly making a difference in people’s lives.
“This has been a moment where lawyers have come in and they are saving our democracy, through litigation and through day-to-day representation in these remote, in the middle of nowhere detention centers. They work day in and day out to make sure that there is access to justice and that the rule of law means something in this country. I can’t emphasize how proud I am of lawyers.”
We would also like to thank Betty Balli Torres for sharing her experience and expertise.
If you are an attorney and would like to volunteer to assist immigrants or others who are in need of legal services, please visit our Volunteer Tools page for a list of resources to help you get started.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation is the leading funder of legal aid in Texas. The organization is committed to the vision that all Texans will have equal access to justice, regardless of their income.