A trio of Puerto Rican students at Columbia Law School is mustering an army of attorneys and fellow law students on the mainland to provide free legal assistance to those on the island impacted by Hurricane Maria.
The so-called Legal Corps for Puerto Rico now boasts more than 700 volunteers who are ready to help once the legal needs of islanders are established—a task made more difficult by spotty phone and Internet service there.
The Legal Corp is the brainchild of third-year Columbia students Patricio Martinez Llompart, Jorge Garcia and Eva Jimenez, who are from the island that was battered by Maria two weeks ago. As soon as the hurricane moved through, they began thinking of how they could best help their homeland from 1,600 miles away. Hopping a plane back home seemed ill-advised, as authorities warned that resources are limited on the ground.
The students organized a campus food and medical supply drive, but quickly realized that Puerto Ricans will have long-term legal needs when rebuilding destroyed homes and reestablishing their lives. Hence, creating a roster of law students and lawyers ready to help, researching the legal matters likely to arise, and training them to assist when the time is right seemed the best way to lend a hand.
“It has been a challenge, but we’re trying to do what we can around this issue to feel a little less useless,” said Martinez Llompart, whose immediate family is still in Puerto Rico.
The Columbia students have connected with lawyer groups in New York and Puerto Rico to share resources and begin training volunteers. Their primary partner in Puerto Rico is Mesa de Trabajo Acceso a la Justicia (the Access to Justice Roundtable), an organization of lawyers dedicated to promoting access to justice on the island. That group has already started training local lawyers to assist clients with Federal Emergency Management Agency claims, filing for unemployment, food stamps, housing assistance, and other bureaucratic tasks. Even before the storm, the island was short of lawyers to represent low-income clients, Martinez Llompart noted.
The Puerto Rican lawyers are also training to staff a local hotline where people can call for help, said Frances Collazo, the liaison between the Access to Justice Roundtable lawyers and the team behind the Legal Corps for Puerto Rico who is also a student at Interamerican University Puerto Rico School of Law—one of three law schools on the island.
Currently, Interamerican is the only one of those law campuses with electricity, and classes resumed this week for students who could attend, Collazo said.
“There are no lights in the streets,” she said. “Food is starting to get to some places, but still there have been a lot of people who don’t have access to food and water. Generally, the progress is still very, very slow. There are still a lot of people without access to basic needs.”
The lawyer and law student volunteers on the mainland will likely end up staffing help lines for Puerto Ricans in need of assistance and may help translate forms and documents for people, and English and Spanish language skills are a benefit.
In the longer terms, the volunteer lawyers may create legal brigades and travel to Puerto Rico, Garcia said, and some students may go down to help during spring break.
“We’re going to do the most we can from abroad right now,’ he said. “But with the holidays break coming up, I think a lot of us are considering using our time there to further the legal aid efforts. We don’t foresee the legal issues being resolved by March, either way.”
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: KarenSloanNLJ