Asylum-seekers are facing an increasingly disorganized and confusing process at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the American Bar Association is calling on its members across the country to put their skills to use at the border.
On April 1, the American Bar Endowment, the 501(c)(3) charitable arm of the ABA, doled out a one-year, $150,000 grant to the ABA Commission on Immigration and its two immigrant-assistance organizations: Texas-based ProBar and San Diego-based Immigrant Justice Project.
The grant was secured by Steve Zack, the president of the American Bar Endowment and partner at Boies Schiller Flexner in Miami.
“Basically, I woke up one day and saw what was going on,” Zack said. “I didn’t see it from a political perspective. What I saw were people who are entitled to due process.”
The funding will be used to hire an experienced immigration lawyer to coordinate the effort and partially finance training sessions and eight border trips running from April 29 to Dec. 6. The ABA is also looking for Miami-based attorneys to represent unaccompanied children at the detention facility in Homestead, which recently drew attention for barring three Florida congresswomen from entering.
Program leaders say the goal is to attract ABA members from across the country. No immigration experience or Spanish-language skills are required. Travel expenses will not be covered unless the volunteer can’t afford to pay, in which case the ABA is willing to reimburse up to $500 in travel costs.
“We want people to be aware of what’s happening and get the word out on the reality of the border,” said Meredith Linsky, director of the ABA Commission on Immigration. “We want to provide opportunities for people to offer their skills and also to have firsthand experience at the border.”
Before heading up the commission, Linsky ran ProBar for 14 years. The organization employs a staff of 100 and has served more than 18,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers, many of them parents and children affected by the Trump administration’s family separation policy. She said that her staff has seen “a lot more chaos” in the last few years, as policies seem to change “overnight.”
Much of the work at the border is simply helping asylum-seekers process their claims. Those seeking asylum have to establish “credible fear” of returning to their home country. Attorneys ask the migrants questions and help prep and organize their story for their telephonic interview with immigration officers.
Gina Polo, a Miami immigration partner at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, will provide guidance to her San Diego colleagues joining the ABA on one of the border trips. Last year, Polo and other attorneys from the Buchanan Miami office volunteered at the Texas-Mexico border shortly after President Donald Trump ended his “zero-tolerance policy” that forcibly separated migrant children from their parents.
The Trump administration has identified more than 2,700 children covered by a court order mandating family reunifications. But the total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown, according to a report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I had never represented children,” Polo said. “It’s one thing where you intellectually know what you’re going to see, but when you actually see them it’s jarring. Some of these migrants are little kids that are 4 to 5 years old separated from their parents for months.”
Interested attorneys can email Jennie Kneedler (email@example.com) and copy Nicole Gasmen (firstname.lastname@example.org). The organizers ask that you include your full name and state bar number.