by Kathy Para
JBA Pro Bono Committee Chair
It took two long years and many hours of pro bono service to determine whether one 27-year-old Cuban woman would be deported from the United States.
After Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) referred the case to the Florida Coastal School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, Professor of Law and supervising attorney Ericka Curran immediately got to work.
This particular client had fled Cuba to join family in the U.S. Members of her family had been political refugees. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., she accompanied her family to the Duval County Courthouse.
Outside of the courthouse was a third party voter registration group. They approached her and aggressively encouraged her to vote, despite her telling them she was not a U.S. citizen.
The group persisted and told her she was eligible. They had her sign documents in English that she did not understand, instructing her to fill them out “from the birthday down.”
She asked several times if her lack of citizenship status was a problem, and the group reassured her that it was irrelevant. She then took her voter registration card to the polls in November 2004 and voted. According to her, she only voted because she thought it was legally permissible to do so.
The clinic and its representatives believe the group and other groups are profit-motivated and were solely focused on registering people to vote, regardless of the jeopardy they placed these individuals in.
Unfortunately, this act caused her to be placed in deportation proceedings. Curran argued that the woman was lacking the requisite mens rea to commit the alleged violations, and therefore, the charges could not be sustained.
“The students argue the case and I coach and supervise. We were able to get the proceedings terminated because she did not ‘knowingly’ vote,” said Curran. “We hope that she will be able to get her permanent residence.”
She adds, “This is a very vulnerable population and it is growing here in Jacksonville. Attorneys who practice in all areas of law are likely to have immigrant clients. It’s important that when an attorney is serving a legal immigrant interested in remaining in the U.S. with a family law issue, for example, that the attorney understands the basics of immigration law so that the client’s immigration status is not jeopardized in some way.”
She continued, “We are fortunate to have recognized experts presenting a CLE for us here locally on Jan. 21, from 1:30-5 here at the law school. They will cover what every immigration and criminal lawyer needs to know about grounds for removal and the Padilla case. The material is also relevant for any attorney with an immigrant client regardless of the nature of the legal matter.”
(Information on the CLE can be found at www.jaxbar.org)
The goal of the Florida Coastal clinic in accepting pro bono cases is prioritizing individuals who have humanitarian types of immigration relief available to them, such as asylum, or special cases regarding children or victims of crimes. The clinic also looks for unusual issues, which may not be readily observable at the initial intake.
For pro bono attorneys who are interested in assisting with the huge need in our immigrant community, there will be an upcoming opportunity to help with a large legal event devoted to low-income immigrants who are lawful permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship on April 16. Other opportunities to serve this vulnerable population are in development including an immigration “Ask-a-Lawyer” day.
Attorneys interested in volunteering for the “Citizenship Day” event on April 16 may con-
tact Kathy Para, chair of The
JBA Pro Bono Committee at [email protected].
Para is also able to supply attorneys with information on other pro bono opportunities throughout the Fourth Judicial Circuit.