Law school students host free clinics in Rio Grande Valley for undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children.
A married father of three seeking a work permit to better support his family. A young mom studying information technology and putting herself through community college. Both came to the U.S. as children and are hoping to gain temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
They are just two examples of the approximately 180 Rio Grande Valley residents helped by The University of Texas School of Law who spent part of their winter break in early January in South Texas doing pro bono work. The students, who worked with law school faculty members and volunteer attorneys, also participated in free clinics to help clients with wills, estate issues and legal residency challenges.
"The students contributed over 1,500 hours of legal services in four days and by my estimates, interacted with over 800 Valley residents," says Tina Fernandez, director of the law school's Pro Bono Program, which provides students with opportunities to engage in pro bono legal work during their time at the law school. A majority of law students pledge to complete at least 50 hours of such work by the time they graduate. "This is concrete evidence of the amazing impact that our students can have serving low-income communities in Texas."
The DACA program, which was announced by President Barack Obama's administration in August 2012, provides temporary legal status to eligible immigrants who came to the United States as children. It also allows them to work in the U.S. for two years.
"The DACA clinics were a great way for us to help applicants with something immediate," says second-year law student Aleza Remis. "They walked out of the clinic with their applications that they could send to the government the next day."
The law school's Pro Bono Program partnered with the Texas Civil Rights Project to organize three clinics. Valley organizations that helped raise awareness about the program or helped staff the clinics included the Minority Council at UT Pan American, South Texas ProBAR and IDEA Public Schools.
"The applications are very complicated and require some forethought on some of the seemingly straightforward questions How did the individual enter the United States? Has the applicant had any interaction with law enforcement? And should the applicant even apply?," Remis explains, noting that the clinics helped fulfill a need for sometimes complex legal services that few others were addressing.
"By working through the applications and documentation with the applicants, we were able to ensure that they sent the best possible application to the government, and, hopefully, the vast majority of our applicants will be approved. This is an incredible opportunity for many," she adds.
The law student volunteers worked with attorneys from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and the South Texas Civil Rights Project to staff wills clinics in Valley cities. Under the supervision of local attorneys, students interviewed low-income property owners about their estate needs and helped draft approximately 90 wills. In addition, small groups helped the South Texas Civil Rights Project in the town of Alamo assemble immigration petitions for women filing for legal residency under the Violence Against Women Act; they also worked with South Texas ProBAR to assist immigrant detainees.
"The opportunity to witness how law can be used to improve people's lives was inspiring for my peers and me," says second-year law student Olga Medina. "For me, the trip reinforced that the mission of law is ensuring access to justice for all communities and motivated me to continue doing my part to advance that mission."
The students also spent time in classrooms this time as teachers. They delivered lessons to middle and high school students on current, youth-oriented legal topics using materials developed by the law school's Street Law student organization. In total, law students worked in 22 different classrooms, a familiar experience for second-year law student Ryan Sullivan.
"I lived in Brownsville and taught middle school there for two years, and I really fell in love the with people and the culture," Sullivan says. "To be able to go back, see old friends and students, all while helping out the community and polishing legal skills, was an opportunity I couldn't turn down."
Law School Clinics (Longhorn Network Special)