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July 10, 2023

How the ABA Helped Me Do Pro Bono Border Work

The author visited the ProBAR office and learned about their work providing legal services to those at risk of deportation. She also met with migrants, observed court proceedings, and witnessed the challenges and inspiring work of ProBAR staff.

By Camila LeMaster-Esquivel
Camila LeMaster-Esquivel, law student member of the ABA Law Student Division and 2022–2023 liaison to the COI.

Camila LeMaster-Esquivel, law student member of the ABA Law Student Division and 2022–2023 liaison to the COI.

In May 2023, I had the opportunity to join the ABA Commission on Immigration (COI) on a pro bono trip to Harlingen, Texas, a city in the Rio Grande Valley—or what one of the COI commissioners described as ground zero for immigration issues and advocates.

How did I get there?

Doors Open Through ABA Liaison Work

I’m a 3L at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law and a law student member of the ABA Law Student Division. I was assigned as the 2022–2023 liaison to the COI last year. I attend COI meetings and help as needed with its projects and initiatives. I also facilitate communication between both entities and represent the voice and perspective of law students interested in immigration law.

The COI’s key work is to ensure fair treatment and full due process rights for immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States. It advocates for statutory and regulatory modifications in law and governmental practice, and it provides continuing education and timely information about trends, court decisions, and pertinent developments for the legal community and the public.

The COI also develops and implements pro bono programs that encourage volunteer lawyers to provide legal representation for individuals in immigration proceedings, emphasizing the needs of the most vulnerable immigrants and asylum seekers. That’s just the beginning of the COI's work.

My Experience on the Ground

With the support of a travel grant from my school, I was able to head to Harlingen, and my work began at the new ProBAR office, a building with colorful workspaces set up to accommodate the remote world environment and its technology.

For more than 30 years, ProBAR has been a leading provider of critical legal services for people at risk of deportation in the Rio Grande Valley. It has a staff of approximately 270 that’s growing, and it seeks to empower immigrants through high-quality legal education, representation, and connections to services. It focuses on the legal needs of adults and unaccompanied children in federal custody and supports non-detained individuals facing removal proceedings before the Harlingen Immigration Court.

If that piques your interest, discover more about ProBAR and search for career opportunities.

On our first day, ProBAR Director Laura Peña and Deputy Director Aimee Korolev provided an overview of ProBAR’s work in the Rio Grande Valley, recent statistics on the community they serve, and updates on what they’ve seen at the border since the end of Title 42, which on March 2020, included COVID restrictions that allowed border agents to remove migrants from the United States.

ProBAR staff attorneys and Pro Bono Counsel for COI Stephanie Baez also then provided an overview of the immigration process for detained migrants, including the credible-fear interview, expedited removal, and the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways rule (also referred to as the “new asylum ban”) and its exceptions. We also heard about the immigration review process, the asylum merits interview process, and those attorneys’ observations of what they have seen on the ground since the end of Title 42.

One-on-One with Migrants

During the week, we met with partner organizations and visited the Port Isabel Detention Center, where we conducted intakes. I also observed how the attorneys in the delegation worked together to navigate a complicated system after the new asylum rule changed on May 11 and how they could advocate in some cases.

I shadowed attorneys as we met with migrants from Venezuela, Honduras, and Colombia. We also toured children’s shelters, and ProBAR staff shared details of their work with these partners, like providing child-friendly, know-your-rights presentations for detained unaccompanied children.

We then visited La Posada Providencia, a shelter for migrants and refugees. And I spent a morning at the Harlingen immigration court, where I observed ProBAR staff give legal orientations to individuals at the court and staffed a help desk giving referrals and information. This was my first time in immigration court, so I was grateful for the opportunity to shadow ProBAR staff and observe court proceedings.

Many COI commissioners have visited the area for years and worked for ProBAR in various capacities, including fellowships after law school. They discussed how things have changed over the years and how amazed they were to see more resources in the area—albeit due to the migrants’ increase and the humanitarian crisis at the border. 

Throughout the trip, I was impressed at the partnerships ProBAR has nurtured with various stakeholders. Its presence is strong and well respected. While ProBAR needs these strong partnerships to continue to meet the needs of so many in the Rio Grande Valley, I think it’s a huge asset to the region.

My impression of ProBAR staff is that they’re incredibly knowledgeable and well-prepared to tackle all the challenges of the immigration system. And they’re doing truly inspiring and powerful work, often filling gaps in important services and increasing access to justice, all while passionately serving the community around them.

This article originally appeared in Student Lawyer on June 29, 2023, published by the American Bar Association Law Student Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. 

Camila LeMaster-Esquivel

Law Student Liaison to the COI

Camila LeMaster-Esquivel is originally from northern Chile and a third-year law student at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio University. Camila aspires to be an immigration attorney and provide business immigration services. She also hopes to use her law degree to create access to justice within the Latino community and be a mentor to increase the representation of Latinos in the legal field. This summer, Camila will work as a summer associate at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP in Chicago. In her free time Camila likes to travel, cross-stich and explore Michigan with her partner Michael.