President's Message

ABA immigration initiatives bring hope to those who come here to begin anew

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Photo of ABA President William Hubbard by Marc Hauser

In July 2014, at a detention center near San Antonio, tears flowed from the eyes of the young children describing their journeys away from violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Despite this trauma, you could still see the hope in their eyes that America might protect them.

Between October 2013 and August 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied children were processed at the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly double the previous year's number. Whatever their reasons for coming to America, all should receive a fair hearing in our nation of laws.

The surge in unaccompanied minors has occurred against the backdrop of our under-resourced immigration court system. Courts are so severely backlogged that immigration judges often carry an annual docket exceeding 2,000 cases, and cases often last for years.

Last July, I was part of a delegation of ABA leaders who went to San Antonio to get a firsthand look at the immigration crisis. We visited Lackland Air Force Base, where 1,200 children who recently arrived at the border were being held and processed. We also visited shelters supported by faith-based organizations.

In November, I returned to the Rio Grande Valley with the ABA Commission on Immigration to observe a key part of the solution to the border crisis. While marking the 25th anniversary of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project sponsored by the ABA, the State Bar of Texas and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, we honored those who do so much to provide critical legal services. This signature program, along with the Immigration Justice Project in San Diego, trains volunteer lawyers and provides children and adults in immigration detention with "Know Your Rights" presentations, direct representation and other legal services.

The ABA has long worked to ensure access to counsel for asylum applicants and other detainees—and for good reason. When children and others are competently represented by counsel in adversarial proceedings, all parties benefit. Legal representation serves not only the clients, but also the court process, ensuring more fairness and efficiency. The immigration judges with whom I spoke emphatically stressed the need for trained counsel to develop the facts and evidence so the courts can make informed decisions. Not everyone who crosses our border deserves to stay, but our country should provide the resources to allow for fair and just determinations. The lack of government resources compels the legal community to step in and meet these fundamental needs.

Last August, the ABA formed its Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants, comprising a cross section of lawyers from various ABA practice groups and charged with responding to the critical need for additional pro bono lawyers. Under the leadership of ABA Commission on Immigration Chair Christina Fiflis and Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service Chair Mary Ryan, the working group is recruiting, training and mentoring lawyers to increase capacity and complement the efforts of existing legal services programs. The group has launched a comprehensive webpage, the Immigrant Child Advocacy Network, that provides information and resources for volunteer lawyers and advocates. We encourage lawyers to visit to learn about upcoming pro bono training programs and other initiatives to represent these children in need.

In a process that is unusually complex, unfamiliar and difficult to understand, access to accurate legal information and effective representation can change lives, as it did for a young boy from Honduras who escaped severe physical abuse at the hands of gangs and was granted asylum. And for the woman from El Salvador who fled horrific domestic violence and, because of a lawyer's volunteer service, can now raise her children without fear.

Working together, we can provide dignity and hope to the individuals whose cases meet the standard for protection in our country.

Follow President Hubbard on Twitter @WilliamCHubbard.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Changing Lives for the Better: ABA immigration initiatives bring hope to those who come here to begin anew."
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