To talk with Dalia Castillo-Granados about child immigrants and refugees, is to remind yourself that hope and hard work can fuel amazing things and literally change the world.
Dalia is the director of the ABA Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA) in Houston, Texas, where she has zealously advocated for hundreds of child clients. She advocates for children and families across the world by mentoring, coaching, and training lawyers to succeed in their cases.
Dalia has represented hundreds of unaccompanied children throughout her career, including applying for trafficking visas, asylum applications, Special Immigrant Juvenile Visas (SIJS), and other forms of immigration relief. She has also represented dozens of children before Texas state courts for SIJS and through adjudications at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Why? Because she is driven to rise every day and run to work because she "just wants to help people." She believes in legal work that is truly client centered. Always focused on how she can make a difference, she launched into this area of work like many, doing "Know Your Rights" (KYRs) presentations for children in detention facilities. These KYRs presentations focus on explaining to children of all ages that, because they have no right to counsel, they need to represent themselves. This is where you see what drives Dalia. The very thought of a child standing up in a courtroom trying to defend themselves before an immigration judge and arguing against a trained prosecutor is just absurd to her. And shouldn’t it be absurd to all of us?
"That was it," Dalia says about learning how many kids are supposed to go to this theater of pretending they can represent themselves in this complex area of law. And she decided then and there, "I was going to get kids lawyers." Not an easy goal. When it is pointed out that a problem as overwhelming and unjust as immigrant children without counsel would scare away most other people, she is undaunted. Dalia shares that she has "always had this intense desire to make things equitable for people." She truly has been driven by a need to make things fair, especially for children, and she inspires the rest of us to do the same.
Dalia’s work in immigration law began while she was a law student. In 2006, Dalia received a public interest fellowship to work with trafficking victims at Boat People SOS. She continued her drive to secure justice for those crossing borders at the University of Houston Law Center’s immigration clinic, with the guidance of one of her heroes, Professor Anne Chandler. There she worked on pro bono referral services to children at the Bokenkamp Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter in Corpus Christi, Texas. This drove her to dedicate her career to advancing legal representation for unaccompanied children. And now she leads one of the most well-respected child immigration advocacy organizations in the country. She is warm, friendly, inspiring, and lights up like a firecracker when she talks about how important the fight for children is. Humbly, she responds to my admiration for her work saying, "I'm such a tiny part of it." But her impact is much more than tiny.
Dalia wants, more than anything, to see children get the right to counsel in immigration proceedings. And while there have been significant changes and improvements in the landscape since 2006 when she started interning in the field, we are far from securing that right. There are still hundreds of children who go unrepresented every year. But Dalia will not stop fighting to get lawyers for each and every one of them.
She is positively effervescent when she talks about encouraging new young lawyers to come in to do children's immigration work. It is a much-improved field to work in now with the government making funds available for some representation. The compensation, support, and general conditions of the work have improved dramatically. But it is still not easy to do such heroic work for kids. Dalia states that the toughest part of the job is counseling young people in crisis who so often have no legal remedy because of the way the United States understands and applies asylum and other immigration laws.
For Dalia, it is not just the successful advocacy that drives her, it is the long hard fight no matter the outcome. Her work on a recent case with volunteer pro bono attorneys for a young man from Honduras is a perfect example. Over many years, Dalia has been working with this client whose asylum claim was based on persecution from gangs because of his religion, an uphill battle for an asylum claim under the United States’ interpretation of international human rights laws. Determined to make sure the kid got the best representation possible, she recruited pro bono volunteers from Vinson & Elkins, dedicated countless hours to the case herself, and ensured that the best case was presented to the immigration court. You can read more about the stunning effort here. Though the court was not convinced, that young person got the best shot possible. And, as Dalia says, hopefully he will always remember that someone cared enough to fight for him.
Dalia Castillo-Granados is the kind of fearless lawyer who inspires us all. In addition to being a great and tremendous mother, spouse and friend, she leads CILA, an organization hundreds of lawyers and advocates rely on for the best training insight, and guidance for how to manage child immigration cases. At CILA, Dalia has brought together an amazing collection of talented advocates who work to make sure children's voices are amplified and that, as a society, we understand the laws we have to protect these refugee and immigrant children. They work every day to increase the capacity of pro bono attorneys, nonprofit attorneys, legal staff, and social services staff that work with children at risk of deportation. She says, "If you can get them status, it makes a difference in their life, in the lives of their families and their children. The benefit goes on for generations."