MentorSince July 2014, when the Obama Administration began detaining women and children crossing the southern border at a makeshift detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, more than 35,000 women and children from the Northern Triangle have been processed at detention centers near the southern border of the United States. The vast majority have been released to pursue their asylum claims after a positive credible fear finding and either payment of a bond or release with supervision (an ankle monitor and/or periodic check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)).

Free from prison, these mothers and children have already demonstrated that they have a significant chance of success on their asylum claim. But that is just one piece of an often long and arduous process. Upon release, it is critical that asylum seekers have competent legal representation. Otherwise, a promising asylum claim can quickly become a one-way ticket back to persecution.

While AILA is an association of more than 15,000 members, only a fraction, fewer than 3,000, handle defensive asylum applications and substantially less have the capacity to handle cases on a pro bono basis. Many AILA members are solo practitioners who lack the time, money, and support staff to handle complex pro bono cases in immigration court. Meanwhile, most of the 35,000 asylum seekers who have been released from detention lack the financial resources to hire a private attorney. Moreover, few non-profit organizations that provide immigration services have funding to handle Adult with Children (AWC) cases. The result is a crisis in the post-release representation of asylum seekers released from family detention.

But there is good news. Innovative and creative solutions are in the works. Several initiatives have sprung up to multiply the efforts of the immigration bar by training non-immigration attorneys in the fundamentals of handling a defensive asylum claim. Efforts are also underway to partner volunteers with non-profit organizations and an AILA mentor, to take on pro bono asylum cases.

The AILA Mid-South chapter has implemented a pilot project to do exactly that. The first event took place in Memphis, where a group of experienced asylum attorneys conducted a four-hour training session for corporate and other practicing attorneys who are interested in taking on pro bono asylum cases on behalf of women and children who have been released from detention. The Memphis Bar Association hosted the event in February with more than 40 attendees.

Now that we have some newly trained and energized attorneys prepped, a pro bono coordinator is working with the Mid-South Immigration Advocates and Community Legal Center to assign cases. Each non-immigration attorney will be paired with an AILA mentor. By using innovative mentorship strategies developed by AILA and the American Immigration Council as part of their new joint initiative, the Immigration Justice Campaign, this Mid-South project has the potential to change a lot of lives. Further resources, including referrals to experts and interpreters, as well as country condition information will be offered to participants.

You may be wondering why a Memphis training matters to you – good question! The Memphis training is just the first of many. Next, the Mid-South chapter is joining forces with the Justice Campaign to sponsor a similar event at the AILA Annual Conference in New Orleans this month. We’re inviting local, non-immigration attorney participants to attend a four-hour asylum training session on Saturday, June 24, 2017, at the Loyola School of Law. After the training, participants will be assigned a case and paired with an AILA mentor.

We need you – AILA members who have experience with defensive asylum cases – to step up and mentor. With email, phone, Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime, being a mentor is no longer dependent on location, but on commitment and passion. Please watch for the call for AILA mentors following the New Orleans event, and consider planning a similar event in your city!

Written by Sheila Starkey Hahn, Member, AILA National Pro Bono Committee