As we get wrapped up in celebrating the holiday season with family and friends, it can be easy to lose sight of what families less fortunate truly need. Instead of toys and games, many families need legal counsel to stay together.
Since 2010, there have been nearly 7,000 refugees settling in Maryland, including children from Central America and around the world. Within the last year, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service – the largest provider of pro bono legal services to low-income Marylanders – has bolstered its programs, trainings and service offerings to help this vulnerable population. But we can only be successful with the help of attorneys who volunteer their valuable time and expertise.
There currently are five families who need counsel for legal proceedings that are focused on unaccompanied youth cases involving daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. We are anticipating a surge in cases come the new year. These cases are about so much more than immigration status; they’re about establishing family stability and security too. I’m sharing just one story of the many families who need legal counsel.
Peter (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) is a 14-year-old boy from El Salvador sent to the U.S. by his single mother concerned for Peter’s safety after his cousin was murdered and in the face of increasing dangers in El Salvador. Peter’s father had abandoned the family. The young boy reported growing dangers in his community, including the abduction and murder of children and regular gunfire heard from afar. Upon traveling to the U.S., Peter was reunited in Baltimore with his siblings. His brother is now seeking custody.
While many of these cases come through MVLS immigration service providers, their attorneys are often precluded from handling family law matters in state court. For instance, in order to get Special Juvenile Immigrant Status, a state court needs to file a motion for specific findings of fact that comport with federal law. MVLS’ family law pro bono attorneys are able to step in to take on these cases: first, to assist the caregiver in resolving any custody issues; second, to obtain the SJIS status for the child to take into immigration court.
Supporting pro bono lawyers
MVLS is extremely grateful for all of the attorneys on our volunteer panel. We are now at a critical point of recruitment. We need more attorneys to help families navigate family law matters on their path to gaining family stability and immigration status.
MVLS and our Unaccompanied Youth Project partners – Esperanza Center, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the University of Maryland Law School Immigration Clinic – have a strong commitment to supporting attorneys who volunteer. We provide sample pleadings, family law trainings, free LanguageLine access, family law mentors, transcription services and our immigration partners work side-by-side with the volunteer lawyers as well. This all results in a tremendous amount of wraparound support for volunteer attorneys.
We polled our volunteer attorneys to understand why they contribute their time to our Unaccompanied Youth Project. The overarching response is because there are Marylanders who can’t afford a lawyer, but they need the help just as much as someone who can. Laurie Hansen, an attorney with Gallagher & Hansen LLP in Catonsville, said she does it because unaccompanied youth cases involve children who have had very arduous journeys to get to Maryland. They have endured horrendous situations and desperately need help.
As we’re in the throes of the hectic holiday season, I urge you to pause to think about what you cherish most about the holidays – sharing time with your loved ones. You can share this wonderful gift with Marylanders in need by guiding them through the legal process, so they can be with their loved ones for years to come. Attorneys have an amazing gift to give. Let MVLS be your partner in sharing your talents.
Bonnie Sullivan is the executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.