Seeking to aid families separated by President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy, several dozen Texas attorneys learned the basics of asylum law Monday during training held by the Austin Bar Association.
The clinic prepared lawyers to assist families through the initial steps of the asylum process: credible fear interviews and bond hearings. Attorneys who registered for the training committed to pro bono cases at either the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor or the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We as attorneys are the only ones who can actually go down to the border and represent immigrant families in asylum proceedings,” Austin Bar Association President Adam Schramek said. “The win rate of people who are represented by counsel versus people who don’t have attorneys is night and day. If you don’t have an attorney … you really don’t have a chance.”
The clinic was organized before an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday halting the separation of immigrant families entering the U.S. illegally.
More than 2,000 children remain apart from their families due to the zero tolerance policy, according to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet issued over the weekend. Many of those families, from Central America, are seeking asylum because they say it is too dangerous for them to return to their homes.
University of Texas School of Law immigration clinic professors Denise Gilman and Elissa Steglich and Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch led the training. The event, held free of charge in a downtown conference room, was at capacity, with another 330 lawyers watching via livestream, organizers said.
Lincoln-Goldfinch stressed urgency to the packed room of attorneys, telling them their assistance is still needed despite the recent policy reversal.
“It could take months (to reunite families). That’s going to be part of the effort of our group,” she said.
Gilman and Steglich walked attorneys through the basics of asylum law and outlined strategies to help move parents through the early stages of the asylum process.
The first part of the process involves credible fear interviews, where asylum-seekers must prove they have a believable fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home country.
Gilman said asylum-seekers and their lawyers must show the persecution is based on one of the following grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Passing the credible fear interview is the best way to reunite families or release them from detention, she added.
“If you lose, you are deported … families get sent back to their home country and into danger every single day,” Gilman said. “That’s why the work at the credible fear stage is so critical.”
Steglich reviewed the process of bond hearings and how attorneys can make the best case for their clients’ release. She told attendees that asylum-seekers with lawyers are less likely to be viewed as a flight risk.
Attorneys of various legal backgrounds attended the two-hour training in hopes of assisting the immigrant families.
Carolyn Gutierrez-Bartelli of Austin-based Boulette Golden and Marin LLP — which focuses on employment and business litigation — said her firm typically does not handle asylum proceedings, but she felt drawn to do so after hearing of the family separations.
“Helping the vulnerable, I think we’re compelled to do that,” Gutierrez-Bartelli said.
Another attendee, 39-year-old Austin resident Annelies Lottmann, said she hasn’t practiced law in Texas since 2011. Though immigration is not her legal expertise, Lottmann said she wanted to return to practice so she can help the children detained separately from their parents.
Lottmann plans to commit to pro bono cases at the Hutto detention center. If other attorneys from the training follow suit, she said, asylum-seekers will see an “exponential” increase in legal representation.
“It sounds like attorney involvement has a major impact on whether the cases are successful, so I think it’s going to be really huge,” Lottmann said.
Austin Bar Association officials hope to have 200 to 300 attorneys committed to pro bono cases.