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In 1982, a Dallas landscaper approached a Maryknoll nun who was active in Central American refugee issues and told her that he had a difficult problem. Two of his best workers had been picked up by a border patrol, and immigration officials said he could do nothing for them, recounts the nun, Sister Patricia Ridgely. She responded in what was, for her, the most logical way: She called a retired Sears Roebuck attorney for help. Life provides many incongruities. A presidential candidate winning the popular vote but not the office. A rain shower on a sunny day. And maybe even a retired corporate lawyer from an upscale Dallas community choosing to spend every workday for the next 18 years in a Dallas immigration court on behalf of the poorest of refugees. But incongruities often disappear when pierced by science, law or the reality of a man’s life. “To talk to Parker Wilson, you’d think he was a guy who sat on the sidelines of the world,” says Sister Ridgely. But, she and others add, he is nothing of the sort. Parker F. Wilson had spent 30 years at Sears practicing “general law: injury, personnel [and] workers’ comp, and riding herd on outside counsel, giving them a hard time and making life miserable for them,” he chuckles. But with Sister Ridgely’s phone call, he launched a second career in an area of law that he describes as “maddening and frustrating, and [one] which causes one to be outraged a good part of the time.” It was that finely honed, never-flagging sense of outrage that Sister Ridgely knew she could rely on in seeking Wilson’s help. Back in the ’70s, she and other members of her community met monthly with Wilson and his wife, Jean, and other couples involved in the Dallas civil rights struggle. “Parker was working with a number of African-American families trying to push justice issues in Dallas,” she recalls. “I was on the picket line many times with him and his wife.” In a sense, Wilson’s job at Sears was his second career because his commitment to social justice and activism runs deep and marks many of his 70-plus years. His family has a long church background. His father was a minister, and his mother taught sociology “and did wild and weird things,” he says. Activism on behalf of the disadvantaged “was just something that you did,” he states matter-of-factly. Wilson and his wife were also part of a church-based Central America group in the ’80s, recalls Sister Ridgely. Concerned about the war in El Salvador and appalled at the general repression of human rights there, the group began writing letters to Congress and holding vigils. After visiting an immigration detention facility on the Texas border, “we discovered this world of refugees slammed into prison with no access to legal help,” Sister Ridgely says. IMMIGRATION 101, 102 In agreeing to help the Dallas landscaper, Wilson “had to do Immigration Law 101 and 102, and he did it,” recalls Sister Ridgely. “He’s like a bulldog, and he never stopped from there.” At the time, Wilson recalls, he didn’t even know where the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Dallas was. “I went to Catholic Services and they told me where it was,” he recalls. “Well, those refugees I helped had brothers, and their brothers had friends, and one thing led to another without my intending it. We got involved in representing refugees, mainly Salvadorans. We would go to their houses or they would come to mine.” In 1982, with the help of some grants from church organizations, Parker Wilson and others launched Proyecto Adelante to assist refugees seeking asylum in this country. “At that time you could probably count the number of immigration lawyers in Dallas on one hand,” says Wilson. “These [refugees] had no one to help them. We thought we could do anything for a few months, that our government would get straightened out on its policy in El Salvador. But it became 18 years.” Proyecto had “dozens and dozens” of clients who walked in off the street every day. And in court, if someone needed a lawyer, he or she was referred to Wilson. Proyecto — or more specifically, Wilson — was the major presence in the immigration court on behalf of asylum seekers for most of the past 18 years, says former staff attorney Natalia Walker, now a research and writing specialist in the Dallas federal public defender’s office. When Proyecto closed its doors last September because of a lack of funds, Walker says, “We estimated there were about 10,000 cases in our active case files, mostly Central Americans — Hondurans and Guatemalans. Parker had single-handedly represented most of those people in some form or another.” Karen Pennington, a former staff attorney at Proyecto who is now in private practice, says that Proyecto’s clients had “implicit trust and love” for Wilson. “They would come in and want el viejito — the little old one — and they wouldn’t believe what anyone else told them until Parker said we were right.” Armed with his ever-present pipe and a big yellow pen with lettering that read, “Stop the War,” Wilson drove the immigration judges “crazy” because of the sheer volume of cases he handled, says Steve Ladik of Dallas’ Jenkens & Gilchrist, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “He was in there every day with a full merits hearing — a final trial on whether his client will be deported. “He pushed a lot of new theories when many lawyers would just say, ‘This client doesn’t have a chance.’ The point for him was that as long as there was a slim chance or he had not made a completely frivolous filing, there was a greater moral standard.” His overall success rate in asylum cases, recalls Wilson, was about 2 percent or 3 percent — about the national average at the time. Sometimes, the goal was to continue the litigation long enough for the Canadian consulate, which had a sanctuary program, to help the refugees. “It was sort of like serving in an emergency room where most of your patients don’t get well,” he says. “The law is terrible, and the regulations keep getting more and more complicated. As bad as things were years ago, now they are impossible.” In the ’80s and early ’90s, and even to a degree today, if someone is fleeing persecution from a right-wing authoritarian regime, the success rate for asylum cases is very low compared with those involving flight from persecution from a left-wing authoritarian regime, says Ladik. “You can see that statistically with people fleeing Nicaragua and El Salvador at the same time.” But to go into court day after day, as Wilson did, and put your best foot forward, only to lose, “takes a kind of strength of character to know you’re doing it again for a greater purpose,” adds Ladik. Although the embodiment of Proyecto’s mission, Wilson, who worked six days a week and well into the evenings, never wanted to be credited as a staff attorney, says Paul Zoltan, a former staff attorney and past president of Proyecto’s board of directors: “He was always a ‘volunteer.’ “ And Wilson’s basic humility was reflected in his insistence on a desk made from a plywood door balanced on top of two children’s folding chairs, recalls Zoltan. Proyecto’s closing last fall leaves a huge gap in the provision of legal services to refugees in the Dallas community, according to Zoltan and other practitioners. And it was another painful blow to Wilson, whose wife died shortly before the closing. His refugee-clients, he says, are “amazingly hard-working and kind” people. “The law is hard and harsh,” he adds. “But the hardest part is not being able to help most of the people in the way they needed to be helped.”

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