Months before the flood of young Central American illegal immigrants at the Texas border became national news, law students Oscar Escoto and Awilda Rodriguez noticed the increase and began to help.
The two students at the Texas A&M University School of Law are providing free legal services for youngsters at the shelter managed by Catholic Charities Fort Worth. The children arrived from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador with stories of abuse in their home countries, or of wanting to reunite with mothers or fathers they’ve never met.
Escoto said children told him their parents wouldn’t let them go to school for fear of violence. Some had seen people slain near their doorsteps or didn’t trust law enforcement. Helping decipher these biographies for attorneys and future immigration cases is important, he said.
“We have a chance to really do our part,” said Escoto, 25. He is a second-year law student and has some immigrant roots.
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Escoto and Rodirguez have been working pro bono with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. It is a nonprofit that was founded in 2000 and provides free legal help to asylum seekers and immigrant survivors of violence. The organization began helping immigrant survivors of domestic violence and unaccompanied minors about 10 years ago.
Efforts to provide legal help to migrant youths passing through North Texas was already underway between October 2013 and July 31, when the number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended along the Southwest border reached 62,998.
Both students combined their legal training with their Spanish-language capability to inform youngsters of their legal rights and to document reasons why they fled their homelands, said William Holston Jr., executive director of the initiative.
“They are great volunteers,” Holston said. “They have been getting very practical experiences as law students.”
Giving back to communities
A&M law students are required to perform at least 30 hours of pro bono work before graduation, said Aric Short, vice dean and professor at the law school. The requirement helps instill a sense of duty and promotes giving back to communities.
Students work in various areas to satisfy the requirement, including domestic abuse, children’s rights, immigration, veterans’ rights, consumer protection and disability rights.
“When our students graduate, we want them to have not just the knowledge and skills, but also the values that will help lead them through a rewarding and successful career in law,” Short said.
Escoto and Rodriguez offer the youngsters presentations about their rights and talk to them in Spanish about how and why they came to this country. The information is given to Catholic Charities or to lawyers who can represent the youngsters in immigration cases.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth assisted 200 unaccompanied minors last year. The social service agency expects about 400 in the upcoming year.
Though border authorities say the influx of unaccompanied minors has diminished, the need for legal help continues.
“We were doing this work way in advance of there being any media attention, and we will be continuing it after the media attention shifts to something else,” Holston said.
The unaccompanied minors typically stay at the Fort Worth shelter for a short time and then move to live with parents or guardians. Their cases are heard in the communities where they end up living, Rodriguez said.
Holston said the youngsters may qualify for humanitarian protection.
“The children who are fleeing gang violence, particularly in Honduras and El Salvador, these kids fall within our mission,” Holston said.
Often, children tell volunteers of seeing neighbors attacked or killed.
“It’s not war, but the conditions are kind of like war,” Holston said.
Rodriguez, a 44-year-old mother of three, said she was surprised at the stories she heard from children as young as 5, 6 and 7. She said she worked on a case involving a 2-year-old who arrived with cousins and an older sister and then was separated from her sister by the system, which classified her as an adult.
Rodriguez tried to piece together the 2-year-old’s journey with help from the cousin.
“We try,” said Rodriguez, who is working on a law degree after 18 years in the Army. “We try to see what we can get from them. They are so little. Some of them come with little papers that have phone numbers of the people they need to contact.”
Some tell Rodriguez they don’t mind going back home, she said.
“You need to have a bigger picture,” Rodriguez said. “There has to be a plan in place. There has to be someone helping them in either staying or going back.”