John G. Simon
BAMSL President, 2018-19
Managing Partner, The Simon Law Firm, P.C.
When I became president of BAMSL, I decided to focus on two things: professionalism and pro bono service. This column is about pro bono work, which all lawyers agree to provide when they take their oaths. Our commitment to provide legal services to those who cannot afford attorneys also appears in BAMSL's Tenets of Professionalism.
Pro bono service takes many forms. Often, an attorney reaches out directly to someone in need to provide free legal services. This is a common – and often quiet – practice for numerous attorneys. Many other attorneys seek to connect with those in need through organizations that match lawyers to qualified indigent clients. BAMSL publishes many pro bono opportunities on its Website at probono.bamsl.org. If you have not explored these opportunities lately, I urge you to do so.
Other organizations that train attorneys to work with multiple clients with similar legal challenges also offer pro bono opportunities. A few months ago, I learned about an innovative ongoing program in Dilley, Texas, called the "Dilley Pro Bono Project" (DPBP, previously known as the CARA Project). These volunteer lawyers represent women fleeing horrors in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States. The volunteers include many attorneys and translators, and they come to Dilley for one week each from all over the U.S. at their own expense. They receive Internet training prior to arriving and in-person training immediately after their arrival, just prior to the start of their work week.
At the conclusion of their week of volunteer service, these attorneys head back home and a new group of volunteers take over the ongoing cases. DPBP coordinates the scheduling and case handling with a small permanent staff of attorneys. The lawyers do their legal work in a temporary trailer located in a federal government complex known as the South Texas Family Residential Facility.
I learned about DPBP through BAMSL member Mark Timmerman, who recently returned from Dilley after spending a week providing legal services to those seeking asylum. Another BAMSL member,Erich Vieth, agreed to travel to Dilley at my request to gather information about the project. He created a video based on his detailed interviews of six volunteers at Dilley. His video is a comprehensive look at the work of the volunteers and the women they are representing.
I highly recommend Erich’s video, which you can find here: https://www.youtu.be/-Ae2FfSyXWU.
Immigration is one of the many issues these days that is so contentious that when people try to discuss it, the facts often do not seem to matter. That makes it especially important to shed some light on what the volunteer lawyers are doing at Dilley.
Federal law invites people from outside the United States to seek asylum by entering the U.S. and requesting an immediate preliminary hearing to determine whether they qualify for asylum. Therefore, these women are not lawbreakers. They are seeking enforcement of legal rights the U.S. offers.
The first hearing in the long process of seeking asylum is called a "credible fear interview." This critically important interview is conducted by an Asylum Officer at the federal complex at Dilley, where the women are being confined.
Presenting one's asylum case to a hearing officer can be challenging, especially when one speaks little or no English, which is often the case with these women, most of whom come from countries in Central America (the volunteers point out that very few come from Mexico).
Making it even more difficult, very few of these women understand the complexities of immigration law. Further, many of these women have recently arrived in the U.S. after completing long, dangerous and grueling journeys. Many are accompanied by young children who are equally exhausted.
The volunteer lawyers assist the women in their efforts to seek asylum by preparing them to present their stories at their credible fear interviews. In the process of preparing them, the lawyers also help the women to understand their legal rights. The process of conducting these interviews in two languages can be challenging for the attorneys and emotionally exhausting for both the women and the lawyers.
As the volunteer lawyers explain in Vieth's video, preparing these women for their hearings lessens the risk that they will be immediately deported and improves their ability to move on to additional comprehensive asylum hearings. Of course, whether a woman qualifies for asylum is ultimately up to federal officers and judges.
Asylum cases have something fundamental in common with many other types of cases in which attorneys offer pro bono services. People who are struggling to make sense of the legal system on their own are at an immense disadvantage. People who do not have access to attorneys do not really have the benefit of laws that often were passed for their benefit.
Whether working with those seeking asylum or with any other person with legal needs, attorneys volunteering their services are to be commended for helping their clients get a fair shake under a complex legal system. The ubiquity of such acts of compassionate pro bono service is something that should make us all proud to be attorneys.
It is my hope that the story of the Dilley Pro Bono Project will inspire attorneys everywhere to consider providing pro bono service, in little ways or in big ways, whether it is in South Texas or here in St. Louis.