Immigrant advocates seek pro-bono attorneys through conference

By Elsa Baughman

JACKSON – The Mississippi Bar’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD) and the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission recently joined forces to offer a seminar focused on children’s immigration issues. Gathered at the Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday, April 7, 73 participants, the majority lawyers and a few religious, heard several panelists address issues mainly concerning two common immigration protections for vulnerable immigrant children: the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and asylum.

During the welcoming remarks, Tiffany Graves, a lawyer from the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, noted that there are not many legal aid programs in the state that focus on immigration issues and they are fortunate to have Catholic Charities doing this work but they need some help.

She said one of the aims behind the seminar was to educate attorneys on how to help pro bono with immigration cases. “We hope you leave inspired to help in your communities,” she told those present.

JACKSON – Kaytie Picket, Young Lawyers Division board of directors, welcomes participants to a day of education about immigration while Tiffany Graves from the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission looks on. (Photo by Elsa Baughman)

Kaytie Pickett, a lawyer and member of the YLD board of directors, said at the beginning of the conference that she had been thinking about pro bono opportunities in Mississippi. “Immigration is something I want to address but I don’t know anything about it,” she said.

She wanted to find ways to train lawyers in immigration work. Pickett heard about Amelia McGowan, an attorney at the Migrant Support Center of Catholic Charities. Pickett contacted McGowan and the seeds for the conference were planted. “Kids Seeking Safety: An Intro to Children’s Immigration issues,” was the theme.

Catholic Charities and the Mississippi College School of Lay Immigration Clinic were also sponsors of this seminar. As a result of this presentation, Catholic Charities hopes to place cases of children in need with pro bono counsel.

McGowan’s presentation, “The Journey: Background on Migration of Children and Families from Central America,” addressed why so many children migrate to the United States, what kind of problems they face in their own countries and here in the U.S. when they arrive. Seventy-four percent of these children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. She said in Mississippi approximately 300 children arrive each year. They are usually released to family members and if they don’t have a family member they are placed with foster parents.

“Often, children represent the most dire cases, representing the most vulnerable clients in immigration courts,” she said, explaining that when a child is apprehended in the border that child is place in a deportation proceeding and in most cases they are not given the right counsel. “That is where your participation is important,” she said.

The seminar included seven presentations that address such issues as asylum and its application process. The keynote address was by Judge Leslie Southwick from the U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit.

Patrick Fields, a law student at the Mississippi College School of Law, said that a lot of time people who are outside the practice don’t understand the gravity of what these children have lived through and don’t comprehend the profound nature of the obstacles they have already overcome and the ones they have before them. “I think that to inform people of that and show them a humane face to this dynamic that they just read about it in the paper it was a really good thing.” Fields said that the overview that McGowan presented about how this process looks like for a lot of these kids may compel the lawyers attending to search their hearts in regards to this issue and consider getting involved.

Courtney Hunt, a lawyer with the Forman Watkins & Krutz said the conference was an eye opening for her. “I hear about these issues in the news but learning a little bit more about what is causing children to end up here in Mississippi and the United States is very important to me,” she said. Her firm has a pro bono partnership with Catholic Charities to do immigration work. “I am excited to be able to be involved in an area in which I can play a little part.”

“I am thrilled to see us calling attention to the children who are here in this country suffering because of the immigration laws,” said Redemptorist Father Michael McAndrew. He said that calling attention to this children will hopefully give people to also look later at the many citizen children who have undocumented parents. “Here in Mississippi we have a need to see the faces of these children and realize that we are a country of immigrants and we need to value them,” Father McAndrew noting that whatever opportunities we give to these children God blesses our country.