Online Campaign Recruits Volunteer Lawyers for Immigrants

Alejandra Silva-Exias is one of the volunteer attorneys who joined Catholic Charities’ state-backed program. (Photo via El Diario)

Even though the state and city of New York have invested over $40 million in legal aid for immigrants, the free attorneys available through such programs as the Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) and the Liberty Defense Project are unable to keep up with the amount of work at hand. Thousands of immigrants undergoing deportation procedures, applying for asylum or some type of immigration relief cannot access those programs and, in many cases, fall prey to unscrupulous attorneys and swindlers.

(…) Part of an ongoing effort by New York State to recruit volunteer lawyers to fulfill this need, an online platform was launched recently targeting law professionals specializing in areas unrelated to immigration who would like to “adopt” some of the available cases published on their page. The attorneys will receive no compensation for their time and labor but will have the opportunity to be trained in immigration law.

This online platform is the newest recruiting tool in the volunteer program, which has been active since last year. So far, it has attracted more than 300 professionals, from lawyers to legal assistants, documentation advisers, interpreters, and even people to accompany immigrants to their summons.

“Our process is simple. People who are interested may search and review the available cases in need of legal services that we have detected. If they are interested, they simply send in their application and express their desire to help. We offer hours of training on immigration issues, and trainees always have the support of an expert lawyer,” said Liane Aronchick, pro bono supervising attorney at Catholic Charities.

The group of lawyers is currently working on 147 active cases under the supervision of two experts from Catholic Charities in charge of advising them, and with the ongoing help of core members of the organization, which handles some 2,700 cases every year. (…)

“We have two goals with this website: to recruit volunteer lawyers wishing to offer free services and who are interested in immigration cases but do not know how to navigate the system, and for those who choose to offer representation to have access to documented examples and training they can use to make sure they are representing people well,” added Aronchick. “At the end of the day, the best pay they can receive is the feeling of having helped someone who needed them.”

To show interest in one of these cases, which are listed anonymously on the site, lawyers send their resume for review. If selected, they receive an information packet, as well as appropriate training and ongoing guidance to ensure that all documents and the defense they are carrying out are prepared correctly.

Alejandra Silva-Exias, the mother of a 3-year-old girl and who is expecting a baby boy next month, is one of the 100 volunteer attorneys offering free services to low-income immigrants and vulnerable populations under the state’s Liberty Defense Project and Catholic Charities.

(…) “I felt that I had to help, that it was my obligation and that I couldn’t remain idle seeing the climate that the current federal administration is creating, in which immigrant communities have been under attack,” said the lawyer, who works full time at the Rockland County Legislature in New York.

In April, Silva-Exias, whose husband is also a lawyer, accepted the case of a 10-year-old Guatemalan girl who immigration authorities want to deport. The attorney, of Colombian and Venezuelan descent, has experience handling tenants’ rights and workers’ rights cases.

“I am a mom, and I was overwhelmed with everything that was going on at the national level. I felt I had a responsibility with this girl. Even though I admit it is complicated to accept such a commitment while you are working full time, especially when this is not the area in which I usually work, I knew I had to do something,” said the attorney, who has found the job more daunting than expected.

“I work on the case in my spare time, during lunch, in the evening, on weekends. I have had to take a few personal days off at work to drive two hours each way to immigration court in New York, but it is worth it if this girl can be saved and we can guarantee that she is able to remain here safe and sound,” said Silva-Exias, adding that she has her husband’s support and that she will not leave the case even after she gives birth in March. (…)

Vilda Mayuga, chairperson of the New York State Industrial Board of Appeals, explained that the way the Trump administration has gone against immigrants and the desire expressed by professionals wanting to help motivated the creation of the project.

“We started out in 2017 when we began to see aggressive changes against immigrants at the federal level. We realized that there was a great need for legal services and we tried to cover it through the Liberty Defense Project. However, we also received inquiries from many lawyers who said they wanted to help but did not have much knowledge of immigration law, so the idea to create this program with Catholic Charities emerged to provide all lawyers with adequate training,” said the state government official.

(…) “People need help and they need it now. This new tool will provide aid to many immigrant families across the state of New York,” said Secretary of State of New York Rossana Rosado.

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