The Importance of pro bono legal services in safeguarding immigrants’ access to justice
“To what greater object, to what greater character, can we aspire as lawyers than to assist the helpless and friendless in a worthy cause? I say there is none. To devote your skill and energy to the plight of another, without the promise of a material reward for oneself, is what sets us apart as professionals.” -John Adams, 1761
Among poverty groups, the immigrant poor constitute one of the most vulnerable populations in need of legal services. They face numerous obstacles in their quest for relief from deportation – language barriers, detainment in facilities located far from loved ones and the availability of legal services, distrust of government authorities, and a lack of familiarity with the legal system in the United States. Furthermore, the stakes are incredibly high – one hearing can determine whether one will have the right to remain in this country, be reunited with family members, or be able to earn a living. Without knowledgeable counsel to assist these individuals in navigating the complicated maze of immigration laws, their chances of overcoming these barriers and presenting a successful claim for relief are slim to none.
I am aware of the struggles immigrants face firsthand. My parents and I fled to the United States from Ukraine as refugees when I was eight years old, trading ties to friends and family for a life that was free from religious persecution. My parents’ sacrifice taught me the value of liberty at an early age and inspired me to use my knowledge of the law to help others legally achieve their fundamental human rights.
As a Florida Bar Foundation Public Interest Law Fellow this past year, I have had the privilege to assist a local Gainesville immigration attorney, Mr. Evan George, with pro bono cases. My fellowship has been an invaluable learning experience because it has allowed me to work directly with clients on cases including asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, Haitian temporary protective status, derivative citizenship claims, U-visas for victims of severe crimes, and foreign residence requirement waivers. In addition to learning about various immigration policies and procedures, I have had the opportunity to observe the critical role an attorney plays in conducting research, procuring documentary evidence, and preparing clients for immigration court hearings. I encourage anyone interested in getting hands-on experience within the evolving area of immigration law to apply for the Public Interest Law Fellowship or contact the UF Immigration Law Association for more ways to get involved.
Marianna Tuninskaya is a 2010-11 Public Interest Law Fellow. The Public Interest Law Fellowship ship Program is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation to promote public interest law, and offered at the Levin College of Law by the Center for Governmental Responsibility.