In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the first wave of a global pandemic, the AILA South Florida chapter along with four long-time partners found themselves grappling with what felt like an impossible question – can we continue to serve people via our annual Mega Citizenship event if we can’t do it in person? The Miami Dade Office of New Americans, Catholic Legal Services of Miami, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Florida Immigration Coalition, and the South Florida AILA Chapter worked tirelessly over the next few months to find a way to answer this question with a resounding “yes!” tweaking and testing a virtual way to deliver a large-scale group processing clinic. The rest, you can say, is history.
From naturalization to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to Temporary Protected Status (TPS), the virtual model dreamed up in the early days of the pandemic has grown and evolved over the last two years, serving over 3,100 individuals. Volunteers and applicants from across the country can now give and receive quality free legal services without having to live in the same city or appear anywhere in person. This model challenges the incorrect belief that immigrant communities fear or are unfamiliar with technology and has empowered immigrants to leverage their comfort with smartphones and WhatsApp, as well their resourcefulness, to connect with willing volunteers who are miles away.
Over the last two years, more organizations have joined this virtual effort, both locally and nationally. New organizations, including the American Bar Association and HIAS, have come on board to help provide new trainings, add additional legal support, and recruit from new pools of volunteer attorneys. The partnership has been serving Venezuelan and Haitian TPS applicants since last year and is ready to begin serving Ukrainians as of the May 2022 clinic dates. As organizations push for increased TPS protections for countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Mauritania, virtual group models such as this one are an answer to the ever-growing need.
So how does it work?
Before even joining the monthly virtual events, volunteers are provided with a list of required and optional trainings related to the representation of TPS seekers from Venezuela, Haiti, and Ukraine, while TPS applicants receive individualized assistance with information regarding TPS eligibility and how to access the clinic. Day of, volunteers and applicants join the clinic via Zoom and are assigned to individual breakout rooms, with interpreters if needed. Legal captains and technical support are available throughout the clinic sessions, and volunteers can communicate with these captains via WhatsApp, in the event any questions or issues arise. TPS forms are reviewed by immigration attorneys before the session ends, and applicants are provided with copies of the prepared documents, along with detailed information about what happens next.
Why should I get involved?
This is a light-touch limited pro bono opportunity that has maximum impact for a small commitment of time. The monthly events have shifts Thursday evenings, and Friday and Saturday during the day. You can sign up for a shift when you are free and join from the comfort of your home or office. Immigration attorneys who can provide collateral advice and a nuanced analysis of potential issues play a critical role during the clinics, as they help ensure that applicants have correct information and understand any potential complications with their cases. If you are new to immigration law, these clinics are a great way to learn the issues through form preparation and observing the advice from immigration experts.
How do I get involved?
Sign up here. You will receive resources and training information in advance of the event. Please encourage Creole and Ukrainian speakers in your networks to sign up to volunteer, as well! These languages are in high demand.
Want to replicate in your Chapter?
Consider volunteering to see how it works. Partner organizations are always happy to share resources for replicating or adapting to your community’s needs.
AILA members, we also want you to be aware of a great virtual opportunity for pro bono during AILA’s Annual Conference: The Annual Conference Pro Bono remote event will be held in collaboration with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York (CCNY) on Friday, June 17, 2022. The event will include consultations and Know Your Rights presentations only and serve immigrant communities of the Hudson Valley. The goal is to assist approximately 80–100 people. CCNY will offer training and is seeking 20–30 volunteer attorneys, with morning and afternoon shifts, with approximately 3–4 consultations per shift. Interested volunteers may sign up here.