Yes, it was about practicing immigration law and expanding her knowledge of its many facets. But in the end, Priscilla Olivarez says her three-month stint as a ProBAR volunteer was about the kids – the clients – and seeing their resilience, their composure in meeting with an attorney, their poise in standing before a judge in a U.S. immigration court.
“I was just in awe of them,” Olivarez said of the youngsters served by the ProBAR Immigrant Children’s Assistance Project.
Almost all the youths have minimal education. The vast majority have recently left desperately poor homes in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Almost all have had a dangerous overland journey to South Texas and were caught by Border Patrol soon after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States.
“And they still want to fight their case in court,” Olivarez said.
For the 31-year-old attorney, three months in Harlingen at ProBAR fit perfectly between the end of the grant that supported her job with the Fair Housing Center in Boston, and the beginning of a law fellowship in the Philippines where she will be working with victims of human trafficking.
“I have always been interested in helping marginalized populations,” Olivarez said. “While I was in law school at Texas Tech, I helped someone in deportation proceedings.”
She had not heard of ProBAR but in the fall of 2012 was talking to a friend about immigration law; the friend had seen an article in the New York Times about a huge increase in the number of unaccompanied children being detained trying to enter the U.S. without proper documents. The article highlighted the work of ProBAR.
More and more children
“I didn’t realize there was this huge influx,” said Olivarez of the number of detained children.
Olivarez, a native of Waco, Texas, who learned Spanish from her Mexican grandparents, contacted Kimi Jackson, managing attorney of the ProBAR Children’s Project, to ask about short-term volunteering.
“Kimi told me it would be a unique experience to see the inside of detention centers,” Olivarez said. “Not many people see this. She said I would gain a lot of legal experience because there was such a need.”
Still, Olivarez – a member of the Massachusetts bar – was nervous about taking on cases, mainly because of her lack of immigration experience. Jackson explained that ProBAR attorneys would be there to guide her, and indeed that’s the way it worked out. ProBAR’s Meghan Johnson was assigned to work with Olivarez.
“The first weeks I read a lot,” Olivarez recalled. “And Meghan helped a lot. If I had questions, she was always there. If I needed her to go with me to meet with the kids, she would go. I always felt like I had support.”
Olivarez said her work at ProBAR began with two asylum cases and then expanded to cases involving special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS), a type of legal relief she had known little about. She also did a “U” visa for the first time and helped a child with a pro se application for asylum.
One part of the ProBAR work she enjoyed was writing legal referrals – trying to find attorneys for children who have left South Texas to reunify with family members in other parts of the United States. In fact, most of the children served by ProBAR leave the area in this way and their cases are moved to immigration courts in other areas.
“Every case is different, so there is a lot to learn,” Olivarez said, noting that an attorney particularly learns advocacy skills.
“I think it would be valuable for any law student or lawyer to come to a place like ProBAR to learn those advocacy skills,” she said. “I don’t think you have to be a diehard immigration advocate to do this type of work.”
As for the length of her three-month volunteer period, Olivarez said she now thinks it is the ideal span.
“The first month there was a lot of learning,” she said. “The second month I was getting more into my groove, and the third month I was getting more independent.”