After months of preparation, multiple conference calls, and strategy discussions, the day was finally here. On June 16, 2018, we held the 8th annual pro bono clinic in conjunction with AILA’s Annual Conference. In the midst of the busyness of AILA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, AILA National, AILA’s Northern California Chapter (AILA NorCal), and La Raza Centro Legal partnered for a successful pro bono clinic.

This was entirely a team effort: La Raza Centro Legal (LRCL) was gracious in hosting this event at their offices in the Mission neighborhood. AILA NorCal generously provided volunteers with breakfast, refreshments, and transportation to the event. Amidst one of the best-attended AILA conferences, we were thrilled to have 30 volunteers, attorneys and interpreters, donate their time and talents. The clinic provided free immigration consultations to 48 community members, screening them to see if any potential immigration benefits might be available. For some participants, it was the first time they were speaking to an immigration attorney. Those that potentially qualified to apply for an immigration benefit or legal status were directed either to LRCL for a follow-up, other local non-profit organizations, or to low-cost attorneys who may be able to assist them further.

The work of LRCL, the dozens of immigration non-profits in the Bay Area, and immigration attorneys who provide their time and services is so important, now more than ever. Immigration law is a maze; people need help to obtain accurate and meaningful information on the laws and ever-changing policies.

For several reasons, there is great need right now for immigration services from qualified attorneys. First, foreign nationals in removal proceedings have no 6th Amendment right to appointed counsel to help defend them in court. Individuals put into prison-like immigration detention centers and actual prisons have little opportunity or know-how to find legal representation on their own. The 5th Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees all persons in the United States have a right to due process: the chance to go to court, defend themselves, get evidence, find help. However, the cards are stacked against foreign nationals in these court proceedings, and if they appear pro se (representing themselves), their chances plummet. There is no way to pretend that every immigrant is receiving the due process we all deserve.

Second, you can’t avoid the fact that the current administration has taken an extreme approach against foreign nationals: increased efforts to denaturalize US citizens; the latest policy changes from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) calling for discretionary denials that may throw individuals applying for legal status into deportation (even due to an officer’s error); the Travel Ban based on religious and national origin discrimination; the heartless attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for those brought as children; the termination of most Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that provided humanitarian relief and employment authorization to hundreds of thousands of members of our communities; the terrorizing separation of thousands of children from their parents; the mass incarceration of individuals for crossing a border by agencies with track records of abuse; Jeff Sessions’ referral of court cases to himself to roll back protections for refugee victims of abuse; among other increased enforcement efforts with no sense of prioritization. While extreme measures against foreign nationals are not new, they are certainly escalating under this administration. US immigration laws and policies are complex and often overwhelming. People caught up in the deportation machine or blocked by the invisible wall require help to make it through.

A few hours of time on a Saturday morning literally changed the lives of 48 people in San Francisco. Pro bono clinics, non-profit organizations, and volunteers can mean the difference between life and death for some individuals. Thank you to those that are able to volunteer! (To find a way to volunteer before next year’s AC, consider volunteering for your chapter’s Citizenship Day event)

Further, supporting and funding immigration services is particularly vital now because there are simply not enough resources to serve every single individual in need, detained or non-detained. We need to continue to advocate for policy changes to level the playing field and uphold due process for all. We need more common-sense avenues, not fewer, that allow people to obtain legal status, maintain status, and work with employment authorization. With the proper support and resources, immigration attorneys and advocates can guide individuals through the labyrinth.