Plight of undocumented children draws hundreds of lawyers wanting to help 

UHLC Professor Geoffrey Hoffman explains asylum law during a conference on ways to deal with the thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S.

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Janet BeckAug. 1, 2014 – A cross section of immigration experts, including University of Houston Law Center faculty, provided a crash course in the law Thursday to an auditorium full of lawyers and urged them to volunteer their services to ease the ongoing crisis of migrant children crossing the border.

Geoffrey Hoffman, UHLC clinical associate professor and director of the school’s Immigration Clinic, and Janet Beck, clinical assistant professor, were among nearly 30 speakers who detailed aspects of immigration law that are applicable to the ongoing “humanitarian crisis” and described services available through social service agencies.

The four-hour free CLE program was organized by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office and co-sponsored by the Law Center, the city’s two other law schools, and numerous law firms and non-profit organizations. Attendance was capped at 500, nearly filling the auditorium of the Houston Community College campus on the West Loop.

Geoffrey HoffmanHoffman explained the complicated process of obtaining asylum, one avenue of legal relief for the estimated 57,000 “Unaccompanied Alien Children” who have crossed the border since October. He described how applicants must prove persecution, or the fear of persecution, in their homeland by virtue of being a member of a PSG, or “Particular Social Group,” or other statutory ground. Persecution, he said, might come from criminals -- pressure to join a gang or retaliation for witnessing a crime – or due to race or ethnicity, religion, nationality, political beliefs, social standing, or any number of other factors.

He outlined a number of ethical and other issues attorneys might face in dealing with the young migrants, including language barriers, trauma resulting from their experiences, their capacity to understand and consent to various legal strategies, possible disabilities, and potential conflicts between the child and parents.

Hoffman suggested techniques for dealing with these minors, including shorter meetings, non-judgmental conversations, open-ended questions designed to get the child talking about their experiences, a show of empathy for their situation, and constant contact as the process moves along.

Group Shot“Don’t cut corners,” Hoffman advised the room full of lawyers. “Asylum law is very specific. You can’t use canned briefs. This is a lot of work,” he concluded, “but very satisfying.”

In a later panel discussion, Beck described the dual mission of the UHLC Immigration Clinic as teaching future lawyers and helping needy members of the community. “We like to take the complicated cases, not the plain vanilla cases involving citizenship,” she said in explaining how the program is gearing up to assist the young border migrants.

She urged members of the audience to serve as mentors to assist volunteers with the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) Houston Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Taskforce created in partnership with several pro bono groups. Attorneys are needed in all practice areas, but especially family law, she said.

Other highlights include:

  • Group shotHarris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said his deputies are undergoing training to recognize various forms of documentation that immigrants may be carrying depending on where they are in the legal process. He said he wants to make sure officers are “making an appropriate response” in every situation. He also urged audience members to contact law enforcement if they learn of criminal activity while dealing with the minors so those who prey on immigrants can be put away. “I’ve got room,” he said referring to the Harris County jail. On a personal note, Garcia said, “I have been to Guatemala and have seen very clearly what these people are up against.”
  • John J. Specia Jr., commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and a former state district judge, said the focus of the agency “is and always will be the child’s health and safety, particularly during this surge.” He said, contrary to expressed fears, the migrant children generally seem to be in very good health with only a few reported cases of chicken pox.
  • Juliet K. Stipeche, president of the HISD Board of Education, said students from Central America are already being enrolled in area schools. She said various programs, including Saturday classes, are planned to help acclimate the migrant children.
  • Vidal Martinez, ‎managing partner of Martinez Partners LLP and a 1977 UHLC graduate, noted that Houston is a focal point for the immigration crisis given its proximity to the border and its heavily Latino population.  “Yes we have a problem,” he said, calling upon the audience to help the children get through the first, legal phase of their plight and then the rest of the community to make sure they succeed in the future. “We are not Murrieta, California!” he said, referring to the town which made national headlines in July when residents blocked the arrival of buses carrying migrant children.
  • Houston Volunteer Lawyers, a service of the Houston Bar Association, operates a website, www.MakeJusticeHappen.org, that attorneys can access to see where help is needed and to offer their pro bono services.
  • For a list of upcoming 2014 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) CLEs in Houston see: 2014 UAC CLES

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