The reason for the growth in demand is an increase in unaccompanied minors, many of whom come to the U.S. on their own and are then placed in detention, said Meredith Linsky, director of ProBAR. “There is increased violence in Central America, and some [children] are joining family members who are already here,” she said.
Some children are as young as toddlers, but the majority of youths who ProBAR works with are ages 14 to 17, Linsky said.
ProBAR was created in 1989 by the American Bar Association, State Bar of Texas and American Immigration Lawyers Association in response to the overwhelming need for pro bono legal representation of Central American asylum seekers detained in South Texas. Last year, ProBAR individually screened about 3,500 detained unaccompanied children, Linsky said.
“The majority of these children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” Linsky said. “This is about a quarter of the total 14,000 children that were apprehended and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.”
She expects the numbers in 2013 to be higher than in 2012. She added that she doesn’t anticipate that immigration reform measures will increase the numbers any further.
Still, the system is taxed. There are four judges, who used to have four children’s dockets a month, Linsky said. Now they have 20 to 25 dockets a month.
The need for volunteer lawyers remains great. In addition to permanent staff, ProBAR uses the services of volunteers, both with and without experience in immigration law. ProBAR welcomes volunteer attorneys, recent law graduates, law students and legal assistants. Attorneys need not be licensed in the state of Texas to participate, and ProBAR provides malpractice insurance for attorneys working on cases through its office.
(For more information on volunteering, call 956-425-9231 or email email@example.com.)
With the expansion of ProBAR, getting the infrastructure in place and making sure staff is trained are challenges, Linsky said. “The new office is already open and we are slowly staffing up,” she said.
Staff plays a special role in understanding the distinctive needs of youths and others who ProBAR serves, said Megan Mack, director of the ABA Commission on Immigration. “Commission staff at ProBAR … knows firsthand how important it is for children, mentally disabled people and other vulnerable individuals to have access to a lawyer and legal information to help them navigate extremely complex immigration laws,” Mack said.
ProBAR has been serving detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center, a 1,200-bed facility owned and operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for more than 20 years. Linsky said individuals at the facility are not just from Central America but all over the world, including Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Founded by just one attorney coordinator and one volunteer paralegal, the organization now has a team of attorneys, Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited representatives, paralegals and volunteers.