In its first partnership with a law school, Human Rights First, a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers, will open an office in April at South Texas College of Law in Houston.
The selection of South Texas as the location for the asylum clinic is due in part to a long working relationship between Dean Donald Guter, who started doing pro bono work with Human Rights First a decade ago when he was living and working on the East coast.
“Having Dean Guter as a friend has been really lucky for us,” said Jennifer Rizzo, national pro bono counsel for Human Rights First.
Guter said the law school will provide office space for Human Rights First at cost.
Guter, a former judge advocate general for the U.S. Navy, said his work for Human Rights First includes amicus briefs and briefings for candidates for public office, including during the 2008 presidential election, on issues such as treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
He said the Houston office is an “exciting thing” for South Texas students, who will have opportunity to volunteer at the clinic and in the community.
Rizzo said Human Rights First initially will hire one attorney and one paralegal for the Houston office, but she hopes to recruit 10 to 30 firms in Houston to provide lawyers for the pro bono asylum work. Rizzo said that last fall she visited about 15 firms in Houston to recruit volunteer lawyers, and Human Rights First has already trained 78 attorneys at three firms in Houston. Those attorneys work at Vinson & Elkins, Latham & Watkins and Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom, which provide volunteer lawyers for other Human Rights First offices.
“One of the great things about Houston is our large firm network extends to Texas,” Rizzo said.
Human Rights First selected Houston for its new office primarily because of three factors: a large immigrant center with a “huge gap in representation,” the availability of lawyers, and the overall sustainability of the office, Rizzo said.
The organization, which has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., noted in a press release that it helps more than 700 refugees a year and receives about $30 million in donated legal services yearly. Funding for the Houston office comes from a grant from The JPB Foundation and The Moriah Fund, Rizzo said.