“Immigration is the human rights issue of our generation.”
So claims one of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland’s (PBRC) volunteer lawyers, Denise Ferguson, a solo practitioner and frequent volunteer with PBRC’s Unaccompanied Children Pro Bono Project (UAC Project). She could not be more emphatic about the importance of the UACP work. Yet, the window of opportunity to assist these children to permanently escape the ravages of their home, including gang violence and parental abandonment, abuse, and neglect may be closing. Joining the cause now and securing Special Immigrant Juvenile status (SIJS) or political asylum before any proposed obstacles are put in place will clearly maximize the number of children gaining legal status and strengthen advocacy efforts.
The Unaccompanied Child’s Plight
Since October 2013, more than 10,000 children have fled their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking refuge in Maryland. The vast majority fear for their life due to rampant gang violence. “Maria” is a typical case. By age 10, the El Salvadoran girl could not recall when she last saw her father. MS 13, a notoriously aggressive gang, had targeted her to join a prostitution ring or face violence or death. Remarkably, she managed to escape and come to Maryland, but had no resources to obtain a lawyer to unite with her local family members. The UACP was designed to help kids like Maria. (See Kenneth Schorr’s article from the fall 2015 issue of the Dialogue for a more in-depth accounting of the numbers of children impacted and the harrowing experiences they face in their countries and the U.S.)
The Maryland Model
Maryland’s experience may be instructive in designing an effective mechanism to save children arriving in other states as well. PBRC played a unique leadership role in the UACP effort in the state. When the first waves of unaccompanied minors arrived, the governor convened a meeting to identify the appropriate response. PBRC was tasked as the central liaison and coordinator of pro bono legal services statewide. Its initial goal included recruiting and training as many volunteer lawyers as possible, and then channeling them to other pro bono and legal services organizations. PBRC further served as a core resource for information about the law, legal services programs’ initiatives, and volunteer activity.
PBRC coordinated twelve partner organizations to address the variety of complex issues. Few private practitioners possessed the requisite immigration law experience or knowledge to step up immediately. Multiple legal services agencies were attempting to gain a foothold into the new landscape, and the controversial nature of the topic created barriers to some “mainstream” resources. Nonetheless, PBRC ultimately created a cohesive network of pro bono and immigration legal services programs, which collectively leveraged volunteers to host legal advice clinics in immigration court, staff screening sessions to determine eligibility for relief, and provide representation to unaccompanied children statewide.
Immigration Court Clinics
After a successful recruitment and training campaign, case referrals to the volunteers still only skimmed the surface of the number of children requiring legal care. Along with community partners Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and Catholic Charities of Baltimore, PBRC approached the immigration court to develop an in-court advice clinic, which allowed trained volunteers and staff to offer individualized legal education to unaccompanied children coming to court and, equally, offer hope. The model worked well, sifting through hundreds of cases to determine which were eligible and where children could seek help. PBRC designed screening tools and support services to ensure that volunteers delivered a base line of legal services during each consult. To date, more than 300 children have received access to legal information as a result of PBRC’s presence in the court.
One More Chance Docket
In Baltimore city, certain children and families who have not found legal representation by their third postponement are placed on the “One More Chance docket.” The creation of this docket gives these children the opportunity to speak with one of PBRC’s volunteer attorneys before they must return to court with an attorney or be prepared to represent themselves.
Pairing Family and Immigration Law Practitioners for Representation
PBRC found that garnering support from volunteer lawyers to take on the responsibility of an entire SIJS case somewhat challenging. SIJS is a special form of relief for children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by one or more of their parents. Immigration applications for SIJS must include a predicate order from the family court stating certain factual findings. While eager to assist, the immigration bar generally did not believe it possessed the family law expertise required to request the predicate order and handle related family court proceedings (typically, guardianship or custody). Family law practitioners similarly expressed trepidation about entering the immigration arena, despite their desire to represent the kids.
To address that challenge, PBRC developed several strategies: 1) offering substantive legal training and support to both volunteers and staff; 2) hosting virtual roundtables with experts in the field so volunteers could ask legal questions about the cases assigned; 3) designing an immigration court brief advice clinic for volunteers to familiarize themselves with the law in a supported learning environment; and; 4) pairing family law practitioners with immigration staff attorneys on the same case who would handle the SIJS determination once the predicate family law finding occurred. Fortunately, lawyers barred in other states could participate in immigration proceedings. As with all of its pro bono projects, PBRC offered malpractice insurance, mentors, an interactive listserv, and webcast training to support the volunteers.
Volunteer Interpreter Pools
The language barrier posed another unique challenge. Aside from recruiting bilingual attorneys, PBRC coordinated a specialized training targeting interpreters who would agree to volunteer for the project. With close to 90 interpreter volunteers now on board, PBRC is currently equipped to offer interpreter services during out-of-court interviews and screening sessions with the children.
Organized Screening Sessions
Daytime court hours did not always align with volunteer or family members’ work schedules. Working in conjunction with Catholic Charities of Baltimore and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), PBRC coordinated a series of screening clinics on Saturdays, which made volunteering more feasible. The clinics served to both train the volunteers and engage them immediately thereafter in interviewing the children to screen for eligibility and identify which agency could assist them if appropriate. This proved to be extremely beneficial and rewarding. As Ferguson explained, volunteering in the clinic has “forced [me] to become a better attorney . . . When you first sit down with the child to begin the interview, it is easy to see they are overwhelmed and don’t know whether they can trust you; but, over the course of the interview, you can slowly start to gain their trust . . . ” Constantly working to build this trust has helped Ferguson further develop her interviewing skills. “The children are truly thankful for what little work you are doing for them . . . [They] have lived in horrific circumstances that no human being should live in.”
Moreover, the screening sessions expedited the typical process of an in-house screening and referral. Dozens of children and their families left the Saturday clinic one crucial step closer to obtaining representation. A number of them were placed on the spot—with a volunteer—or otherwise accepted for services by the nonprofit. The sense of relief and hope was palpable. Since beginning of the screenings last March, approximately 100 kids received representation.
PBRC’s Project Manager, Cate Hulme, continues to look for new ways to support the network of programs and affiliated volunteers. She utilizes the Listserv to place cases with multiple providers, helps track a volunteer’s commitment, sends updates on the law and procedures, and communicates with the immigration court and bench.
Access to Resources
With help from the American Bar Association’s Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants, PBRC connected with immigration advocates across the country to swap best practices and learn new strategies for facilitating more effective volunteer programming. Anyone interested in replicating the project should consult with the Working Group. With the energy and passion for justice in the legal services community and the reality of a new era for immigrants, the future of these children should not be left to chance.