Attorneys, Advocates Join to Provide Legal Aid for Undocumented Immigrants in Austin

Dec 22, 2016

In the days after the presidential election, a group of immigration attorneys in Austin started talking about what they could do to address concerns among Austin's immigrant community.  Ultimately, they formed a group called Texas Here To Stay and have been working to naturalize immigrants.

Jennifer Walker-Gates, one of the Austin attorneys who helped start the group, is an immigration lawyer with her own firm. But, she often collaborates with nonprofit organizations in order to provide service to the people who need it most, whether or not they can pay. She says Texas Here To Stay was born of this mentality.

“The immigration advocates here in town are close-knit, and within days of the election, we had met and formed this organization,” Walker-Gates said.

Over 40 people showed up last Saturday at El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission in South Austin to volunteer for the fourth clinic hosted by the group. In one room, intake volunteers gathered to be briefed on their duties for the day. In another, immigration attorneys waited to be matched up with immigrants seeking legal consultation. In a third room, a volunteer began a presentation about immigrants’ rights and what to do if the police or ICE come knocking.

The Texas Here to Stay clinics operate like a doctor’s office­: Immigrants wait in a room to be matched up with a volunteer, who gathers information about them on an intake form, before sending them to meet with an attorney who gathers more information about them in order to prepare their case.

Justin Estep, the director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas, helped coordinate this process at the clinic.

“Those intake forms are distributed the following Monday amongst all the different legal service providers who then take clients based on what makes sense for their organization," Estep explained. "That way they just become clients of the different coalition members and can get legal services going forward from there."

Sarah Woelk, an attorney at Casa Marinella, gives a presentation on immigrants' rights to clinic attendees.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Texas Here To Stay brings together immigration advocacy organizations and immigration attorneys, in order to provide service to immigrants who cannot pay for their own cases.  The Consulate General of Mexico in Austin, the Workers Defense Project, the University Leadership Initiative and Univision help provide support and publicity for the clinics, while American Gateways, Casa Marianella, Catholic Charities of Central Texas, Equal Justice Center, RAICES, and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid cases of immigrants who come to the clinics. The legal organizations’ revenue is generated through public contracts and private donations.

Blanca Gavino, a Mexican Consulate employee, explains that getting accurate information out to Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. is more important now than ever. 

“Because of the recent political context, there might be fears and there is more probability now for them to become victims of fraud or scams,” she said.

Over 50 immigrants showed up to the clinic on Saturday to find out if they are eligible to apply for American citizenship and to be matched with an attorney. This brings the number of immigrants the group has matched with attorneys to over 170, according to Estep.

Ultimately, Estep says, the goal of Texas Here To Stay is to provide accurate information to those in Austin's immigrant community and to take advantage of the resources currently available to fund immigration before the beginning of the Trump administration.

Texas Here To Stay will resume running clinics in January. The dates for these clinics will be posted on the group’s Facebook page.