ABA Project Provides Legal Services to Detained Migrants in South Texas

Jennie Kneedler
Representing a detained migrant in immigration proceedings is a great way for recent law graduates and new attorneys to get in-court experience.

Representing a detained migrant in immigration proceedings is a great way for recent law graduates and new attorneys to get in-court experience.

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There continues to be a pressing need for volunteer support at the US-Mexico border. Visit the ABA Commission on Immigration for pro bono opportunities for attorneys and internships for law students

All lawyers can agree that due process and fundamental fairness are served when migrants have access to legal services that provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions about their rights and responsibilities. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration (Commission) works to ensure fair treatment and full due process rights for immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees within the United States. The Commission operates two direct service projects and one legal resource center. In November 2019, the Commission’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) is celebrating 30 years of empowering immigrants and asylum-seekers detained in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas through high-quality legal education and representation. ProBAR was founded in 1989 to respond to the pressing need for representation of migrants fleeing violent civil wars in Central America. Now ProBAR serves thousands of individuals a year from all over the world. 

ProBAR has more than 170 staff members, the majority of whom work with unaccompanied children residing in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Since October 2018, US Customs and Border Protection has apprehended more than 70,000 unaccompanied children along the Southwest border. When unaccompanied children are transferred from Border Protection custody to a shelter bed in the Rio Grande Valley, ProBAR takes the helm, providing legal rights presentations and individualized screenings for each detained child. ProBAR expects to serve more than 20,000 children in 2019.

By law, unaccompanied children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must be placed in proceedings before an immigration judge, where they have a right to apply for legal relief and have access to legal counsel “to the greatest extent practicable.” While most unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley are released to sponsors before their immigration proceedings get fully underway, ProBAR represents some of the detained unaccompanied children who are detained for longer periods or are released to sponsors in the area. Across the country, the need for representation always outpaces the number of attorneys available for migrant children, especially in rural areas. It is estimated that only half of immigrant children with pending immigration proceedings are represented.

The representation rate for adult migrants is even lower, and detained adults face the greatest barrier to accessing counsel. ProBAR’s adult team serves two facilities housing adults detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in south Texas. The largest facility, the Port Isabel Detention Center outside Brownsville, Texas, often houses more than 1,000 migrants at a time. Some of the migrants have been living in the United States for years and often have children who are US citizens. Other detained adults are recent entrants who have fled persecution in their countries of origin. Through group orientations, ProBAR staff provide migrants with general information about their legal rights and responsibilities before their first hearing with an immigration judge. ProBAR staff provide individualized orientations and help migrants who are representing themselves fill out applications for relief. Finally, ProBAR tries to narrow the representation gap. The adult team works to identify cases where a lawyer is likely to make the most difference, and either represents those individuals for free or works with the Commission’s pro bono program to place the case with a volunteer attorney.

Pro bono attorneys have also made a positive impact on the lives of many of ProBAR’s clients. If you speak Spanish, ProBAR is looking for attorneys to represent detained adult migrants in their removal proceedings. You do not have to be licensed in Texas; attorneys licensed in any state can represent migrants in immigration court. Representing a detained migrant in immigration proceedings is a great way for recent law graduates and young attorneys to get in-court experience. There is also a great need for immigration-related pro bono representation all over the country. You can find organizations in your community at the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN) website.

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Jennie Kneedler

Jennie Kneedler is a commission staff attorney based in Washington, DC. She spent several months working at ProBAR in 2018 and 2019. You may contact her to learn more about the organization and volunteer opportunities at Jennie.Kneedler@americanbar.org.