Spotlight on Volunteers

Danny Turns 18

I quiz Danny for what seems like the hundredth time about what he needs to do once he arrives at his permanent home in the United States.  He responds haltingly in Spanish.  Learn to read…and write… and learn English.  I sigh in relief. 

I am worried.  Danny is about to turn eighteen years old.  The children who age out in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody go from the juvenile detention center—a child-friendly atmosphere—and transfer immediately into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and into an adult detention center here in the Rio Grande Valley.  Once there, age-outs like Danny go to a separate holding tank for a few days or weeks before they are transferred into the general population.  Not a place for Danny.  He is just a kid, right? Even as his eighteenth birthday looms, he is still just a kid in my mind.

As I walk Danny back to his group, I explain what will occur when he turns eighteen in just a few days, and he nods.  I leave him in good spirits.  Either he has great confidence in me and the other ProBAR staff he has met, or he truly does not understand his situation. 

In the days leading up to Danny’s birthday, Angel—a ProBAR paralegal— and I work to coordinate Danny’s journey from Texas to his new home.  The children are Angel’s priority, and his passion for the role he plays in their lives is bright and sincere and inspiring.  Meghan, my supervising attorney, plays her part as well, contacting the ICE Deportation Officer and the caseworker at the shelter.  It is an exhausting amount of work on top of all our other work responsibilities, but we do it.  Where would Danny be without the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) Children’s Project? 

ProBAR offers pro bono legal services to unaccompanied alien children (UACs) detained in federal shelters across the Valley.   These UACs are in removal proceedings, meaning they have to go before the immigration court.  The children are not entitled to an immigration attorney provided by the government though they may acquire one at their own expense.  Many children go to immigration court alone, while a small portion has a ProBAR attorney.

ProBAR is an organization with heart.  All here feel fortunate to work with children, one of the most vulnerable populations.  Often, the children come to the United States to reunite with a parent who long ago left the home country because of poverty; sometimes they make the journey knowing no one awaits them in the United States.  Children as old as seventeen and as young as ten make the journey.   

Every child who comes through the ORR shelters in the Valley receives a Know Your Rights presentation from a ProBAR paralegal.  Then, the paralegals individually screen each child for flags that signal a child could potentially qualify for relief from removal, such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) or asylum.   This happens every week, all year round.  The wave of children pouring into the Valley is symptomatic of a larger problem, but it is a problem the countries from which the children are fleeing must fix.  The reality is that there are many more children who qualify for some form of relief than the ProBAR attorneys can represent and the numbers keep growing. 

Just two years ago, in July of 2011, there were 369 unaccompanied children detained in ORR shelters around the Valley.  The number jumped in July 2012 to over 700 detained children.  As I leave ProBAR this August, there are 1,173 children in the shelters and by September 2013, ProBAR will need to provide services to 1,200 detained children in the ORR shelters. 

One of the hardest things about working at ProBAR is witnessing the process the attorneys go through to choose the children they will represent.  Every Friday at team meeting the paralegals pitch the cases that have been identified as urgent at their assigned shelters.  These are the stories that touched the paralegals, and it is obvious in the way that they recite the facts—sometimes the same case for weeks—hoping to convince one of the attorneys to take on just one more. 

In fact, Angel pitched Danny’s story one Friday.  Meghan took the case, and that is how I came to meet and work with Danny.  I drafted the state court documents for his dependency hearing, completed the federal forms for his case, and tried hard to make sure he understood his legal situation.  On that day months ago, Danny was lucky.  He had ProBAR, Meghan, Angel, and me.

The day Danny ages out is a Saturday, and ICE releases Danny on his own recognizance.  Rather than sleep in, Angel, Meghan, and I pick up Danny from the Department of Homeland Security Office.  We take him to eat pizza at his request.  It is his birthday, after all.  We then take Danny to a homeless shelter run by nuns —La Posada de Providencia—where he will stay before heading off to a far part of the United States. 

Danny was one of many, and though we understand that, we are not disheartened.  There is more work and more children to help on Monday.  We leave Danny in the nuns’ care, knowing that is probably the last time we will ever see him.  We played our part, and now it is the nuns who will take Danny to the airport in the morning and see that he gets on the plane to his new home.  Of course, there is more to do on Danny’s case—he still needs a lawyer in his new hometown.  But it will all happen over the phone, and I will be back at law school by then. 

Before we leave, Angel snaps a picture of Meghan, Danny, and me; it is perfect.  It is a bright and beautiful afternoon in the photo, and we are smiling under the gentle shade of the nuns’ towering Live Oaks—Danny still in his shelter-provided red polo-style shirt; Meghan and me in our weekend clothes, bags slung cross-body, “first-in-flight-style,” as Meghan calls it.  We promise to send Danny a copy.  For me, the photo is not a souvenir.  It is not something I will put in a frame in my living room to point to in some sort of self-aggrandizement; Danny deserves more than that.  That photo serves as a personal reminder to do all I think I can and then to give of myself even more.  Every day.

I am very grateful to the Texas Access to Justice Program and to ProBAR Children’s Project for providing me with this great opportunity to help individuals like Danny. 

JoAnna Serrato

Law Student Intern