'Desperate Need for Attorneys' - Perspective on Border Refugee Crisis
Each year, thousands of refugees, including many women and children, are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and held in detention centers while they await the outcome of expedited removal proceedings. These families’ bond applications are often denied, or their bond is set higher than what they can pay.
Rebecca Van Uitert, Dean of Career Services and Professor of Development at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, was practicing immigration law at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in Chicago in October 2014 when she heard of a few colleagues planning a trip to the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico to provide legal help for its hundreds of detainees. As a law student, Van Uitert had interned both at the US Immigration Executive Office and for the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services and was familiar with the unmet legal needs of refugees to the US. She spontaneously signed up to go with them.
At Artesia, Van Uitert stated that, “I met with dozens of detained women and children to assess possible claims for relief, and to further develop the facts for their upcoming merits hearings or bond hearings. I represented these refugees at Reasonable Fear Interviews and Credible Fear Interviews before the Asylum Office. Although I have lived in and travelled to numerous third world countries in connection with humanitarian projects, I have never been this up close and personal with human suffering. Day after day, client after client, these women and children shared horrific accounts of brutal violence and persecution.”
After her first experience at the Artesia detention center, Van Uitert was convinced that more volunteer attorneys were needed. She drafted an impassioned letter to Austin Fragomen, the founder of her firm, delineating reasons why the largest immigration firm in the world should feel an obligation to help people who had virtually no legal representation. He agreed and directed the Fragomen Pro Bono team to organize teams of volunteers.
Designed as a temporary facility, the Artesia center closed in 2014. Van Uitert subsequently volunteered at the Dilley, Texas detention center, then spoke about her experiences at the JRCLS Annual Conference in 2018. Because of her presentation, the Women in Law arm of JRCLS was inspired to organize its own volunteer event in the fall of 2018. They are now planning a follow up annual event in 2019.
Asked if immigration experience was necessary to volunteer at Dilly, Van Uitert emphatically says no. In fact, a former roommate of hers went armed only with her bar membership, having never practiced law. She says that this is the perfect volunteer opportunity for women who are not currently working in the law. The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at Dilley has streamlined the process for volunteers, including providing instruction, guidance, and templates for representing refugees in credible fear interviews, bond hearings and removal proceedings.
She says, “Looking forward, there is a desperate need for additional attorneys to continue to volunteer for this project. The most important qualification is a passion for helping immigrants.”
By: Kathryn Latour