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June 15, 2018 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

George T. (Buck) Lewis, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

Imagine being a teacher in a small town in Appalachia and receiving a call from a young student who said that she was left at school and no one had come to pick her up.

Imagine that your student's primary worry was not herself, but the whereabouts of her baby brother, age four. She was always dropped off first and then her little brother would be dropped off second, so she really didn't know exactly where her brother was kept during the day. So not only was she concerned about her own future, and her parents, she literally did not know how to find her baby brother.

Imagine being the parent of a ten-year-old whose best friend was left on the steps of the local school. Then your child's friend came to your house beside themselves, not knowing why her parents didn't pick her up or what had become of them.

Imagine going to the great hall of a church and holding a six-year-old boy in your arms until the wee hours of the morning, rocking him back and forth, because he could not stop crying.

Imagine spending the night in a gymnasium where scores of people, mostly children, were crying and overcome with worry. Imagine having nightmares about your experience because that entire gymnasium sounded like a symphony of agony for hours upon hours.

Imagine being part of a community for ten years and, on an otherwise normal day in April, being herded up and taken on a bus from East Tennessee to Louisiana the next morning, with no hearing before any type of judge or non-judicial officer.

Imagine not knowing what had become of your children who were left behind.

Imagine working in substandard conditions for illegally low wages, but managing to put away a few dollars for a rainy day and having to spend that money to post bond in Louisiana, with the prospect of paying to travel to Memphis for your deportation hearing.

Imagine working in an emergency room, where children are brought in and hospitalized due to the stress created by the destruction done to their family.

Imagine saying goodbye to your mother and father one morning and then not seeing or speaking to them for over a month.

Imagine knowing that, in the midst of all this turmoil, you will be losing the apartment in which you and your children were living.

Imagine not knowing whether your children would be placed in foster care or with a distant relative or if you are deported, whether they would be allowed to go with you.

Now, imagine that this really happened in the United States of America.

Bean Station, Tennessee, is home to about 3,000 people. The big jobs in town are in the slaughterhouse and in the vegetable fields. On April 5, 2018, agents from I.C.E. arrested nearly one hundred undocumented workers. The next morning, approximately two-thirds of them were taken by bus to Alabama or Louisiana for their bond hearings. Their deportation hearings, on the other hand, will take place in Memphis.

From a pro bono perspective, this situation presents many of the challenges of a natural disaster. The event came without warning. It affected a large number of people at the same time. It happened in a rural area where very few lawyers are located and pro bono legal help is needed in multiple locations.

As usual, we can be proud of the response of our profession. The Tennessee Immigration Rights Coalition, the Knoxville Bar Association, the University of Tennessee College of Law Legal Clinic, and the Duncan School of Law, have all provided legal assistance to the children left alone.

Ninety percent of these families had been in this community for ten years or more. In the first twenty-four hours, thirty thousand dollars was donated to help these families. Almost one hundred thousand dollars has been donated to date. Seven truckloads of food and clothing have been donated.

Lawyers all around the region dropped what they were doing and drove to this small community, many staying into the wee hours of the morning to triage legal problems and to assist in the immediate legal needs of these families. The Southern Poverty Law Center volunteered to handle the bond hearings; and law firms and lawyers from around the southeast are beginning to volunteer for the deportation hearings, which will be held in Memphis.

This situation is a special pro bono challenge because multiple lawyers in multiple states are needed. A lawyer is needed where the raid occurred. A lawyer may be needed where the children end up living. A lawyer is needed where the arrested individual is taken for detention, in this case Louisiana or Alabama. A lawyer will be needed for the hearings in Memphis.

As Father Steve Pawelk of the Catholic Church in Morristown observed in a recent letter published in the Knoxville News Sentinel, regardless of your politics—Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian—and regardless of your views on immigration, any person with a compassionate heart should be moved by the impact these raids have on our children. The full impact on the lives of these innocent young people will unfold for years to come. Pro bono lawyers will be an indispensable part of the team looking out for their welfare.