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GiVE Back: V&E Pro Bono Blog

  • 28
  • April
  • 2017


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Lawyers on the Front Lines, Part I: Time to Go to the Airport

First-Hand Account of V&E’s Pro Bono Counsel

Friday, January 27:  Breaking News from CNN and others come across my smartphone. “Travel Ban from 7 Countries, Refugee Programs Suspended.”

Immediately, I sent an email to my colleagues around the country, all pro bono counsel at their respective firms. “What is happening? Do we need to do something?” The email traffic was thick throughout the evening, with brainstorming – people trying to figure out how our firms, who already represent immigrants and refugees, can help those who will face travel or other issues

Saturday, January 28: Requests from Organizations for Lawyers to volunteer at the airports start flowing.

Emails began to circulate to lawyers all over the country from organizations like International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), asking for volunteers to begin “staffing” the airport. What does staffing the airport even mean? What would our lawyers be doing? As Pro Bono Counsel, I had to weigh the need at the airports with the inherent risks associated with individual representations.  Approvals had to be sought, details about what work our non-immigration lawyers would be doing was needed, and there was constant discussion about both of these topics among various stakeholders.

Sunday, January 29: Lawyers Eager to help.

Lawyers for Good Government responded quickly – sending out social media and email blasts to their membership, which consists of many lawyers all across the country, including lawyers at big law firms like V&E.  Those emails, along with the IRAP requests, created a steady flow of V&E lawyers asking for permission to go to the airport, in their various cities, to help those who may find themselves in need of representation, and to answer any questions that travelers may have. Approval was obtained, and on Sunday, V&E lawyers joined other lawyers at the airports.

Legal Service Providers and non-profits were taking the lead at the major national airports, but Houston found itself without an identified structure.  Lawyers for Good Government and IRAP were working together to try to keep track of travelers and any issues faced, including interpreters and immigration experts, when needed, but this model was not sustainable. We needed more structure, if this was going to sustain in Houston.

Monday, January 30: Houston, We have a Plan:

The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, itself an innovative organization made up of all of the immigration legal service providers in Houston, including Houston Volunteer Lawyers, initiated an early morning call to discuss how we could best respond to the need, while appropriately directing volunteer lawyers – the constant concern of any pro bono counsel.

As a result of this call, we were able to utilize the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Clinic sign-up portal, customize it to the shifts we needed at the airport, and launch a portal for volunteer lawyers to sign up for specific shifts, thus alleviating the concern of having too many or too few lawyers at any particular time, and allowing immigration experts and lawyers with language proficiencies sign up to help, as well.

Within 3 hours, we had over three-hundred lawyers signed up for shifts. This has to be a record for the launch of any pro bono program. Lawyers saw a place for them to help, and jumped in with both feet.  The contributions of legal service providers, volunteer organizers and big law firms allowed the Houston airport response to have the necessary structure and impact that travelers needed to get through immigration properly.

Lawyers all over the country responded like they did in Houston – eager to learn and to help. The collaborations of legal service providers and law firm lawyers provided representation or legal guidance for hundreds of travelers, who would otherwise not have access to lawyers or any legal guidance. This response proves that collaboration is key – it was the combination of the different stakeholders, with different expertise and resources to offer, that allowed the creation of a rapid response to a pressing legal need. 

Airport shifts went on for two weeks. Because of the legal maneuvering in the NY and the Washington cases, the need for on-the-ground airport advocacy waned, but the questions and concerns of the immigrant community was ticking up at a fast rate. The organizers knew we needed to stay plugged in and figure out a different way to get information to this community. We couldn’t just stop at airport response…

Read Part II: The Birth of the Texas Immigrant Rights Hotline

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Ellyn Haikin Josef Pro Bono Counsel