December 01, 2014

ProBAR celebrates 25 years of pro bono legal assistance

The South Texas Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) − established in 1989 by the ABA, the State Bar of Texas and the American Immigration Lawyers Association as thousands of adults and families from war-torn counties in Central America were detained at the border − last month commemorated 25 years of providing legal assistance through pro bono representation.

A Nov. 17 celebration in Texas was attended by ABA President William C. Hubbard; members of the ABA Commission on Immigration; ABA Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Diversity Officer Valeria Stokes; Nancy Andrade, lead counsel, ABA Commission on Hispanic Rights and Responsibilities; current and former ProBAR lawyers and volunteers; and former ProBAR clients.

The project, overseen by ABA Commission on Immigration staff in the association’s DC office, began with one attorney and a paralegal and has grown to nearly 40 staff members in two offices in Harlingen, Texas. The offices focus on providing “Know Your Rights” presentations, legal screening services and pro bono representation to adults and unaccompanied children in detention throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

During the summer of 2014, ProBAR dealt with a tremendous influx of unaccompanied children who were primarily fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for various reasons, including the high incidence of violence from gangs and drug cartels. Children continue to arrive today, but in lower numbers.

In 2013, ProBAR served 6,500 unaccompanied children and 3,200 detained adults. This year’s total number of those represented is expected to be double, particularly with regard to the children.

Once a child is detected by Border Patrol agencies, he or she is transported to a Customs and Border Protection (CPB) processing station and held while being processed. By law,  children may be held no longer than 72 hours but sometimes are there as long as 15 days. Children from contiguous countries (Canada and Mexico) may be deported immediately by CPB officers, but those entitled to a formal removal hearing are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services, which places them in ORR shelters.

Historically, about 85 percent of the unaccompanied children were placed with approved sponsors within about 35 days to await their removal proceedings in the heavily backlogged immigration court system. The surge of unaccompanied children has resulted in accelerated reunification in as little as seven days without traditional legal screenings, and these children have no rights to appointed counsel or guardians ad litem even though statistics show that 47 percent of represented children were granted the right to remain in the United States compared to 10 percent of unrepresented children. Volunteer pro bono attorneys do their best to fill this gap.

 “Everyone deserves the right to counsel, including newcomers to our nation,” ABA President William C.  Hubbard said during the celebration. “ProBAR lawyers provide a lifeline to those who have nowhere else to turn. At the same time, lawyers who volunteer with ProBAR gain unique hands-on court experience. Volunteers gain a greater understanding of U.S. immigration laws and a dedication to human rights.”

 “Over the past 25 years, ProBAR staff and volunteers have impacted countless individuals by providing them with essential legal information, valuable moral support and high-quality representation. At the same time, these newcomers have equally impacted those who serve them by demonstrating admirable courage and resolve,” according to Meredith Linsky, a former ProBAR director who is now director of the ABA Commission on Immigration.

 “In the end, when we do what is right, the entire system benefits through increased fairness and improved access to justice. We hope ProBAR will continue to flourish under the fine leadership of Director Kimi Jackson and Managing Attorney Meghan Johnson,” she said.

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