Working on the Border
In the border towns of Texas there is a shortage of immigration lawyers. One proven solution is to import volunteers from around the country and teach them how to represent a client in removal proceedings. That's the ProBAR approach. ProBAR is the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project of the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration. Every year about a hundred volunteers help with ProBAR cases, and staff guide them through the process. Some attorneys work offsite, others travel to ProBAR's offices in Harlingen, Texas to meet their clients and appear in the local immigration courts. Harlingen is in the Rio Grande Valley, a few miles from the Mexican border, and not far from the Gulf of Mexico.
"You don't need a lot of experience to volunteer here," says Meredith Linsky, ProBARs director. "We support our volunteers with training manuals, sample documents, and mentoring." Volunteers are covered by malpractice insurance too. In addition to its work with individual volunteers, ProBAR hosts students from law schools around the country, and has an ongoing relationship with the law firms Fried Frank and Akin Gump. Interpreters and legal assistants volunteer too.
The opportunities for volunteers are wide-ranging. "When someone calls," says Linsky, "we match them with the right kind of work, depending on availability, experience, preference, and language." ProBAR provides direct services, and community legal education, such as "know your rights" presentations to immigrants at the detention center. ProBAR serves detained and non-detained clients, including both adults and children. Volunteers work on political asylum cases, special immigrant juvenile status petitions, family-based applications, appeals, and more.
The detained cases are particularly compelling. The detainees served by ProBAR are held at the remote Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC). It is a 30 mile drive on country roads from ProBAR's offices to the detention center. The detainees are people charged with immigration violations who were arrested at or near the border or transferred from other parts of the country. In detention, their cases are on the immigration court's accelerated calendar. Gathering evidence or offering witnesses is extremely difficult. Many appear pro se, simply because there are not enough attorneys to go around. The area does not have a population large enough to support the legal and social needs of immigrant detainees or their families. Attorneys who want to help can contact Meredith Linsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ProBAR and the communities it serves are in the news lately. There is a dramatic increase this year in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border into the United States. The influx impacts ProBAR's work, and increases the need for volunteer attorneys. ProBAR director Meredith Linsky is quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article. In addition, the New York Times wrote this week about the Rio Grande Valley's struggle with local smuggling operations.
The Immigration Advocates Network's Pro Bono Resource Center has more information about detention work and border issues, including:
- "Detention and Due Process: Transfer, Access to Counsel and Conditions of Detention" a podcast on the legal challenges for people in immigrant detention centers.
- "In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the US Southwest," an Amnesty International report on human rights violations at the southwest border. [See Chapter 5 for a discussion of detention and deportation.]
- "Isolated in Detention: Limited Access to Legal Counsel in Immigration Detention Facilities Jeopardizes a Fair Day in Court," a report by the National Immigrant Justice Center on access to counsel in remote detention centers.
- A comprehensive "Detention and Bond" folder in the Immigration Advocates Network library.
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