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Wanted: Volunteers for ABA immigration projects

The American Bar Association’s three immigration projects in Texas and California are looking for pro bono lawyers, as well as volunteer researchers, writers and paralegals.

Volunteers are always welcome, but they are particularly needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when immigrants and asylum-seekers in federal detention are feeling isolated, with little access to family or legal help.

Lawyers with the three ABA projects made their case at the webinar, “How the ABA is Serving Detained Immigrants During COVID-19 and How You Can Help.” No immigration experience is necessary and even lawyers who speak only English can help.

“An attorney with no experience in this area can get familiar and get up to speed quickly,” said Ambreen Walji, pro bono coordinator and staff attorney with the ABA Immigration Justice Project in San Diego. “We also offer ongoing training and there are opportunities for remote volunteering.”

The ABA Commission on Immigration operates two projects that provide direct help to immigrants and asylum seekers on the Mexican border, and a third project that trains and supports lawyers who work with children in the immigration system:

  • ProBAR – The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project is based in Harlingen, Texas, near Brownsville. With approximately 180 employees and contractors, it provides free legal information and services to detained adult migrants and unaccompanied children. It is the largest provider of legal immigration services to unaccompanied children in the U.S.
  • IJP – The Immigration Justice Project is based in San Diego. With 12 staffers, it provides pro bono information and services to adult migrants and asylum seekers. It is the largest legal services provider at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
  • CILA – The Children’s Immigration Law Academy is based in Houston. With six staffers, it serves as a legal resource center for attorneys representing migrant children. CILA operates a website called Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation, where lawyers across the country can find cases in their area that need volunteer lawyers.

For many immigrants and asylum seekers, having a lawyer by their side is often the difference between freedom and deportation. Immigrants with lawyers in bond hearings are four times more likely to be released than immigrants without lawyers, and five times more likely to receive asylum, Walji said.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, when ProBAR staffers began working from home, they received a lot of prank calls from detainees, said Priscilla Orta, a senior staff attorney with ProBAR. The detainees would joke about needing toilet paper, “and I was thrilled,” Orta said, “because that meant it wasn’t real to them yet. That meant somehow we had been spared.”

But on March 26, ProBAR had its first reported case of coronavirus at a nearby detention center. The number of cases quickly multiplied and suddenly calls from detainees were no longer funny. The detainees were scared, “and they should be,” Orta said. “The conditions inside the detention centers are deplorable. There’s a lack of communication from the outside world and we’re fighting in a jurisdiction that’s not immigrant-friendly.”

Orta said the ABA projects need four kinds of volunteers: People who won’t take no for an answer, people who can write and tell stories, people who hate bullies and researchers who can talk about conditions in foreign counties from which asylum-seekers flee, even if they aren’t lawyers. “There are only a few of us and we cannot possibly serve everyone,” Orta said.

Children especially need help now, said Chloe Walker, senior staff attorney with CILA. Immigration authorities have sped up the pace of immigration court cases, forcing children to go to court “for no real reason,” Walker said, because children who cross the border are often united with family and sponsors within the U.S. without a judge’s intervention.

More than 600,000 children have pending immigration cases, Walker said, and half do not have lawyers because children are not appointed free attorneys or advocates, as they are in the child welfare system. “There are lots of people out there in your community who need your help navigating through the immigration system,” Walker said.

  • To volunteer with ProBAR, click here.
  • To volunteer with IJP, click here.
  • To find a children’s immigration or asylum case in your area, click here.

You can watch a recording of the webinar and get additional resources here.

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