UT Law Pro Bono Program Sends Thirty-Three Law Students to the Rio Grande Valley

On January 9–14, 2011, thirty-three students and four faculty members from the University of Texas School of Law spent the last week of their winter break in the Texas Rio Grande Valley helping to provide pro bono legal assistance in underserved communities. 

The students and faculty members fanned out across the Valley from San Carlos to South Padre Island to work on a variety of legal matters under the auspices of three local nonprofits: Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the South Texas Civil Rights Project, and the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR). The trip was organized by the law school’s Pro Bono Program, a project of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, and a law student organization, Pro Bono in January

Students on a tour of a colonia in San Juan.

After an orientation to the Brownsville area that included a tour of the border and a colonia neighborhood and a visit to observe workers harvesting crops in the fields, twenty-two students split their time between two projects for the South Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.  Tina Fernandez, director of the Pro Bono Program, and Mary Crouter, assistant director of the Justice Center, joined them.

The students spent the first part of the week on a low-wage worker outreach project organized by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.  The students met with tourism industry workers on South Padre Island and made “know your rights” presentations to workers at several community centers.  During the second half of the week, the students staffed evening wills clinics at two community centers, helping to draft seventy-six wills for low-income homeowners. 

Students helping with a wills clinic in the LUPE union hall.

The wills clinics, an ongoing collaboration between the South Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, are intended to reduce the cost of administering low-income homeowners’ estates and to maintain clear lines of title to their homes.  According to first-year student Patrick Lopez, “The wills clinic was a great experience.  I found working directly with the clients to be both challenging and enriching.  Some of the clients’ more complex requests and situations highlighted the need for attorneys to carefully review documents and to draft them clearly and precisely.” 

Two smaller groups focused on immigration matters.  Five students spent the week in the South Texas Civil Rights Project’s San Juan office helping to research and prepare asylum petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, assisting fifteen clients.  Six students and Professor Denise Gilman, codirector of the Law School’s Immigration Clinic, worked on asylum cases and U-Visas for ProBAR clients in the Harlingen area.  Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, ’08, also traveled to the Valley to help supervise the students.  In total, they assisted nine clients from Sierra Leone, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, all of whom are being detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the area. 

First row, left to right, UT Law students Adriana Bole, Megan Sheffield , and Stacy Cammarano; second row, left to right, UT Law student Louann Fang, University of Illinois Law student Alejandra Lara; third row, left to right: University of Illinois Law student Ricardo Gonzalez, UT Law student Sergio Davila, and Sarah Henkel of the South Texas Civil Rights Project.

Assessing the ProBAR team’s week, Lincoln-Goldfinch noted that “the clients we helped were not represented by counsel.  Each faced a lengthy asylum hearing and evidentiary requirements without the ability to leave detention or to make free phone calls.  The students stepped up to the plate, contacting family members and friends from the home countries for assistance obtaining documents, and helping to complete asylum applications, draft filings for court, and prepare the clients for trial.”

The host organizations were pivotal to the trip’s success, Fernandez said.  “We are so fortunate to have established relationships with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, South Texas Civil Rights Project, and ProBar.  Their attorneys dedicated significant time to helping us organize the projects in advance, and to training and supervising the students while we were there.” 

Fernandez is also very pleased with the trip’s impact.  “The students helped to provide legal services or information to more than 150 low-income individuals.  Many of these individuals would not have received assistance but for the work of the students.  And one of the most inspiring results of the trip is that an overwhelming majority of the students responding to a post-trip survey indicated that the experience made them want to participate in more pro bono work.”

About the Pro Bono Program:

The vision for Pro Bono Program is that students at the University of Texas School of Law will engage in pro bono work to increase access to justice and develop a lifetime commitment to providing legal services to those in need.

Press contact: Tina Fernandez, Director, Pro Bono Program, William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, 512-232-6170, tfernandez@law.utexas.edu