Maria Aguila was born in this country. Her Filipino parents navigated the U.S. immigration laws and forms without legal assistance. For too many immigrants, this process is a barrier to naturalization unless a lawyer assists with the process.
On Aug. 25 and Oct. 2, both attorneys will join forces at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid to co-teach two seminars aimed at training more lawyers to help more immigrants realize their American dreams.
“It’s one of the most rewarding types of cases that any attorney could hope to handle,” says Maria, who has experienced immigration as a lawyer, as the daughter of immigrants, and once even as a guest speaker at a naturalization swearing-in ceremony.
“I remember being a 5-year-old girl and my parents going to the swearing-in ceremony, and here I was, speaking at one,” she recalls. “I didn’t realize how emotional it would be speaking about my own family’s story. . . But I remember my parents’ ceremony and how it was such a big deal with the military there with the flags. As a five-year-old I was in awe.”
“It really is quite emotional,” says Ericka, who makes sure the law students who work in the FCSL clinic attend these ceremonies and experience the joy that they’ve helped create. “I think it gives you a greater appreciation for our history as a nation, because most of us have some kind of immigration history. These clients have amazing life stories, particularly the clients who come to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and the refugees.”
Of course, most practicing attorneys are too busy to be able to reap the rewards of such ceremonies, but even just being part of the process can yield tremendous satisfaction.
“For these individuals, they’ve worked so hard to get to where they are,” Maria says. “They are really very excited just about beginning the process. Just getting to that point is sometimes the culmination of a lifelong emotional investment. Many have lived in bad places, and they come here and they’re just so happy to have a place where they can sleep where they won’t be fearful that they will be killed in the night for doing or saying the wrong thing.”
Despite the 217 people that the FCSL Immigration Clinic has helped in its first two years of existence, Ericka says so much more needs to be done.
“With just one lawyer and eight law students at the clinic, we have to send away more than 50 percent of the immigrants who come to us for help,” she says. That is why the FCSL/JALA immigration training series is so important.
Soon after the training seminar, JALA and the Immigration Clinic will join forces to offer a new intake session at JALA on the first Tuesday evening of each month. “We will try to put a dent in the 50 percent of immigrant cases that the Clinic hasn’t been able to handle,” Ericka says.
“That’s why the first session, on Aug. 25, will be an hour-and-a-half (3-4:30 p.m.) devoted to the ins and outs of immigrant population intake and cross-cultural lawyering,” Ericka says. “We’re encouraging immigration attorneys to assist with the new immigrant client intake on the first Tuesday of the month. Experienced immigration attorneys will often be able to give the client brief counsel and advice without actually opening the case. Also, if there is a legal issue, the attorney may choose to represent the client on a pro bono basis.”
The second seminar on Oct. 2 will spend two hours (11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) on the naturalization process. Any attorney interested in this process is encouraged to attend. There is no charge for the seminar, but attorneys are asked to accept at least one pro bono case within a year of attending the seminar. Participating attorneys will receive 3 CLE credits for the naturalization process training seminar.
Both Ericka and Maria admit that the immigration training, by itself, won’t be a major boost to anyone’s law practice nor will it prepare an attorney in all facets of immigration. However, the connections attorneys can make through performing subsequent immigrant pro bono work could be invaluable.
“Personal relationships are very important to immigrant clients. Sometimes it is a challenge to reach these diverse communities,” Ericka says. “And word travels very fast in immigrant communities. If a client trusts a particular attorney, that client’s endorsement will lead to additional referrals. Also, as these clients become established in the community they return to the attorney for additional assistance in other matters as fee-paying clients.”
“Yes,” Maria says. “And all of a sudden you have access to the 10,000 people of that ethnicity that you didn’t get to before and you didn’t know existed. You begin assisting that one pro bono client and it could really branch out. They could always look in the yellow pages, but it means so much more if it’s someone they know they can trust.”
There is no charge for the training seminars, but participating attorneys are asked to either assist with the immigration client intake night at least twice during the year and/or accept a pro bono immigration case. Attorneys interested in attending can contact JALA Pro Bono Development Coordinator Kathy Para at mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 356-8371, ext. 363.
“It’s pro bono that’s manageable. It’s pro bono that matters.”
Professor Ericka Curran runs a clinic at Florida Coastal School of Law that in just two years has provided direct representation to more than 200 immigrants, many of whom have become U.S. citizens.