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As immigrant families face separation, law students can provide volunteer help

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Immigrant Family
A volunteer with a Catholic Charities' Humanitarian Respite Center leads a group of Central American refugees in McAllen, Texas, in August 2017.

The American Bar Association is urging action in Congress on the separation of children from their parents when arriving at the southern border. And if you’re a law student, several organizations are asking for your help.

The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project is seeking law students for 6-day stints working in a family detention setting. “Ideal volunteers for this work are attorneys, law students, or paralegals with an understanding of asylum law in the United States,” their call for volunteers reads. “While experience is preferred, it is not a requirement as training will be provided to all volunteers before they enter the Center. In order to help as part of this work it is required that you speak Spanish fluently, or that you are able to secure your own interpreter to join you at the Center.”

CARA is a collaboration between the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is also seeking law student volunteers for its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. Law students can either volunteer in person (at court hearings, visitations, or screenings) or remotely (drafting or translating documents).

The Texas Civil Rights Project is seeking help with legal intake in Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso, and Alpine. The group is seeking volunteers who speak Spanish, Mam, Q’eqchi’, or K’iche’ and have paralegal or legal assistant experience.

The Refugee And Immigrant Center For Education And Legal Services (RAICES) also accepts help from law students. The organization provides legal services for asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, immigration detainees, and victims of violence.

Law students and other visitors to the ABA Grassroots Action Center can connect with their representatives through email or a phone call. According to the ABA Journal, the site offers a number of legal arguments that can be used in support of legislation.

The ABA is also accepting donations for immigration justice projects. The donations go to mobilizing attorneys at the Immigration Justice Project (IJP) of San Diego and South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and training attorneys in the Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA).

New! Law students can express their interest to volunteer at the #StandWithImmigrants site. The initiative is a ollaboration between the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), The Advocates for Human Rights, UnidosUS, and Pro Bono Net to empower legal advocates and other allies across the United States

Last week, ABA President Hilarie Bass sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen expressing the association’s strong opposition to recent actions by the Department of Justice and DHS that have resulted in a drastic increase in the separation of children from their parents when arriving at the southern border.

In an e-mail sent out yesterday, Bass reiterated opposition to the policy:

Earlier this week, the media reported that a Honduran woman was breast-feeding her daughter at a Texas detention center when a government agent took the infant from her arms. The official said the child would be returned, but she was not. Unfortunately, that story was not an outlier. ABA staff and volunteers who provide legal services to children in border shelters have witnessed first-hand the traumatic effects of separation on these children and their parents.

We can differ on issues of national immigration policy, but don’t we all agree that it is simply shocking that hundreds of young children are separated from their parents just because their parents brought them across the U.S. border illegally? It’s worth noting that first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor.

The American Bar Association has asked the Trump administration to stop routine family separations intended to deter entry into the United States by asylum-seekers and others. I issued a statement calling for an end to this disturbing policy on May 30, and in a letter earlier this week to the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, I spelled out arguments against this inhumane and arguably unlawful practice. I concluded: “The systemic practice of separating parents and children is antithetical to our values as a country, appears to violate longstanding precedent protecting rights to family integrity, burdens the federal criminal justice and immigration adjudication systems and increases costs to the government.” Read the entire letter here.

While members of both parties – from Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) – have called for a halt to this very recent practice, no specific bipartisan legislative measure has yet emerged to address it. The time for congressional action, not just speeches, has come.

I ask you to contact your senators and representative with a simple message: “Enact legislation to stop routine separation of immigrant families at the border.” As lawyers, you can stress the due process implications of using family separation as a weapon in the efforts against illegal immigration. (I discuss this more fully in my letter linked above.) You can make your voice heard by logging onto the ABA Grassroots Action website here, where you can get information about how to contact legislators with this straightforward request. Please lend your voice to this important effort.

The letter Bass refers to states that the systemic practice of separating parents and children is antithetical to our values as a country, appears to violate longstanding precedent protecting rights to family integrity, burdens the federal criminal justice and immigration adjudication systems, and increases costs to the government. The ABA believes that when families are apprehended and placed in removal proceedings, parents and children should be kept together in the least restrictive environment necessary or released as an appropriate alternative to detention.

Update: Bass on the president’s executive order

President Donald Trump signed an executive order this afternoon to end the separations of immigrant families at the border. ABA President Hilarie Bass applauded the president’s decision to sign the order and called on the government to quickly reunite families. Here is her statement:

The American Bar Association is pleased that the administration has decided to stop the inhumane and untenable policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. We call on the government to expeditiously and efficiently reunite families and minimize any further harm to the children. The ABA pledges its full support in working within the legal community to make this happen.

The executive order is a first step. Comprehensive and just immigration reform is still needed. The ABA opposes detention of noncitizens except in extraordinary circumstances and favors humane alternatives to detention that are the least restrictive necessary to ensure appearance in their immigration proceedings, including pre-hearing release and bond. It is not an either-or choice between separation and detention of families. Families should not be detained unless there is some individualized determination of flight or security risk.

If families are detained, clear standards are needed that allow visits by independent observers and friends and family. Detainees also should receive legal information explaining the process and their rights.

In addition, asylum seekers legally approaching ports of entry should not be turned away or told to return later. Our country has the obligation to accept legal asylum seekers and not force them to try to enter the country illegally or face other dangers as they wait for entry.

In addition, the ABA supports the appointment of counsel at federal government expense to represent all indigent persons in removal proceedings.

The ABA is committed to defending liberty and advancing the rule of law as well as protecting our borders. We ask that all officials exercise restraint and a common-sense approach centered on true public safety when it comes to arrest and deportation and we call on everyone involved in the process to be treated with dignity and respect.

If you are a lawyer and want to volunteer, donate or help in any way, the ABA has a resource page with information here.

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