Who are the lawyers?

If you like acronyms, you’ve hit the jackpot.

The non-profit BCFS (which used to be Baptist Child and Family Services) has a contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the federal department of Housing and Human Services (HHS), to run the facility itself. They have no connection to the legal services, nor should they. They are obliged to provide access to lawyers, that’s all.

The government also funds grants for the intake screenings, under something called the Flores Settlement from the 1990s. A non-profit called the Vera Institute for Justice administers the grants. In El Paso, the grant has traditionally gone to the El Paso Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Service (DMRS). DMRS had a lawyer on staff who would interview Unaccompanied Children (UCs) who had just arrived into ORR custody in El Paso. This was not a full-time job, and most of the kids went to their sponsors around the country before the cases ever got filed in immigration court.

This summer, Tornillo opened, and DMRS was quickly overwhelmed with hundreds, and then thousands, of kids. They staffed up as quickly as they could, but they were still inundated. Additionally, the kids were sitting in detention for so long that their immigration cases started getting filed, and they had to start going to court. DMRS started trying to represent the kids in court, too, to the extent that they could keep up.

Last month, Vera also gave a grant to RAICES to perform intakes and represent the kids as much as they can. RAICES is a non-profit that provides pro bono legal representation to indigent people in immigration courts throughout Texas. It has 130 lawyers, has been around for 30 years, and is well respected throughout the country.

RAICES has offices all over Texas, but not in El Paso. So the Monday before we arrived, they started flying in teams of lawyers to conduct as many interviews as they could, Monday to Friday. To do these intakes all day is emotionally exhausting work, and to do it for five days straight is something I really can’t imagine. Plus, these people have families and need to go home once in a while.

Vera also funds the Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA), which is part of the American Bar Association (ABA, but you knew that). CILA also gets funding from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. It’s basically three and a half people, and Brandon is the half. He has a full immigration practice in Houston, and he works part-time coordinating these volunteer efforts. Brandon is the one who sent out the original email asking for volunteers.

We were there to keep the operation going over the weekend, to try to expand the capacity. Even with DMRS, RAICES, and us volunteers working all day every day, the kids keep coming more quickly than the lawyers can keep up with. What will happen next is anyone’s guess.