In 2014, non-profit legal service providers working with unaccompanied children and youth saw a large surge in the number of children entering the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and being placed in removal proceedings. At this time, Dalia and Yasmin, both attorneys working in the non-profit children’s immigration world, noticed the outpouring of support from individuals wanting to assist on a pro bono basis. They also saw, however, that the non-profits were being called on to do the impossible – provide meaningful assistance to many more children, and at the same time, train and mentor interested pro bono volunteers. The answer seemed clear. While many states with large immigrant populations benefitted from the services of a legal resource center, Texas did not. And while many legal resource centers around the country addressed the needs of children, none made serving unaccompanied immigrant minors an exclusive focus.
In 2015, Yasmin casually mentioned the idea of creating a Texas legal resource center focused on children’s immigration law to Meredith Linsky, Director of the ABA’s Commission on Immigration. Dalia and Yasmin had already drafted a plan. The aim would be to support legal service providers by providing training and support for their staff, thereby improving staff capacity and sustainability. Additionally, the center could support pro bono volunteers in their efforts to assist unaccompanied minors.
At the same time, members of the ABA Working Group on Unaccompanied Minors, led by Mary Ryan and Christina Fiflis, and staffed by Meredith Linsky and Cheryl Zalenski, were having the very same discussions among the Working Group’s membership. The ABA president at the time, William Hubbard, created the Working Group with a goal of increasing pro bono representation of unaccompanied minors in removal proceedings. Developing a legal resource center to support these efforts was something deeply aligned with the Working Group’s mandate. It also complemented the long-time mission of the ABA Commission on Immigration to ensure fairness and full due process rights for immigrants and asylum-seekers in the United States. Enthusiastic about the idea, Meredith invited Dalia and Yasmin to send her their proposal. She soon garnered ABA support and worked to establish CILA as the ABA’s newest immigration project by the Fall of 2015. CILA’s very first grant came from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and subsequent sustaining funding has come from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Simmons Foundation, and Houston Endowment, among others. Having recently celebrated its 5th anniversary, CILA is honored to continue to serve advocates and pro bono attorneys in Texas, and to have expanded some of its efforts, including those to support pro bono programs, to the rest of the U.S. Under Dalia’s leadership and with the guidance of its advisory committee, CILA’s team of attorneys has gained credibility as a source of on-point trainings, individualized technical assistance, collaborative working groups, and in a tough climate, a safe space for brainstorming, support and solidarity. The ABA is proud of what CILA’s small but mighty staff has accomplished and looks forward to its continued growth and impact.