TRLA attorney Michael Urena visits as Lives in the Law speaker

Michael E. Urena, who leads Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid’s Native American Rights practice, recently visited Texas Law as the spring 2024 Lives in the Law speaker. During his visit, he gave a talk in the Eidman Courtroom entitled “The Struggle Over Native American Children and Haaland v Brackeen: Permanent Peace or Temporary Truce?” He also met with students and other members of the law school community.

Urena’s talk focused on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Haaland v. Brackeen, which rejected constitutional challenges to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). In setting out the background of Brackeen, Urena explained how ICWA operates in child welfare cases and how it interacts with state law. After outlining the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding, he described the state court proceedings that preceded Brackeen and explored the likelihood of future challenges to the ICWA.

“We were honored to welcome Michael Urena as our distinguished guest,” said Nicole Simmons, director of the Justice Center, which hosted the event. “His remarks raised important legal questions concerning the history and future of federal Indian law and advocacy for tribal members within the state of Texas.”

Based in TRLA’s Eagle Pass office, Urena has provided legal services to low-income Texans and their families for almost 30 years. In addition to leading TRLA’s Native American Rights practice, he also leads its Disability Rights practice.

Urena has had a diverse practice: from family law to electric utility rates to disability rights to employment and farmworker law to housing and consumer law and Native American issues. His reported cases include Serna vs. Law Office of Joseph O Onwuteaka, PC, 732 F.3d 440 (5th Cir. 2013) (adopting a consumer-friendly standard for when the limitations period begins for certain Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claims) and Hurst vs. Texas Dept. of Assistive and Rehab. Services, 482 F.3d 809 (5th Cir. 2007) (holding Texas did not waive its Eleventh Amendment immunity for claims that its Vocational Rehabilitation Program violated the Rehabilitation Act).

Originally from California, Urena earned his BA from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before entering military service. While in the U.S. Army, he became fluent in German and was stationed in West Berlin, Germany. He received his JD from the George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC. While in Washington, he was drawn to Texas by TRLA, which was then known as Texas Rural Legal Aid.

The “Lives in the Law” speaker series focuses on the work and lives of lawyers who strive to improve the lives of others through litigation, advocacy and public service and is hosted by the Justice Center and Career Services Office each semester.