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UT students to provide free legal services in Rio Grande Valley

UT law students, professors and alumni will be in the Rio Grande Valley from Jan. 5-10 to provide free legal services to immigrants and low-income property owners as part of the UT Pro Bono program’s annual "Pro Bono in January" trip.
photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin

During the winter break, law school students from The University of Texas at Austin will improve their legal acumen while providing free legal services to people in need from Jan. 5-10.

36 law students, accompanied by alumni and law school professors, will travel to the Rio Grande Valley for the UT Law Pro Bono Program’s annual January trip to write wills, offer workshops for Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and provide immigration assistance.

Tina Fernandez, director of UT Law Pro Bono and clinical professor at the law school, said this will be the fifth time that UT law school students have paid a visit for providing legal services in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We started working to identify areas that had high levels of need for free legal services, and because of the high level of poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, a lot of legal needs go unmet,” said Fernandez, a Valley native. “We are excited to travel down to the Valley to provide services.”

The services UT Law Pro Bono is providing are broken down into different projects that the group will be working on with various legal services organizations.

UT Law Pro Bono will work with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid to provide the Wills on Wheels services to low-income property owners.

“For a lot of low-income communities and the people that we serve with the wills, their only real asset is a home,” Fernandez said. “We are helping these folks make sure that their home is passed with clear title, without any probate issues, and in this way what we’re hoping is that we’re helping to build wills in low-income communities over generations.”

The DACA clinics will be organized by UT Law Pro Bono along with South Texas Civil Rights Project. DACA calls for deferred action for undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as children and have pursued education or military service.

“For the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals there are a lot of benefits for people who apply for DACA and are accepted into the program,” Fernandez said. “They get a valid social security number, which then allows them to get a work authorization, and so these are undocumented students who now will be able to have a valid social who can work, who can apply for a Texas driver’s license and then, most importantly, they are free from the fear of deportation while they have their DACA status.”

For the immigration assistance services, UT Law Pro Bono will work with two organizations to provide different services. South Texas ProBar will help provide representation to people who are being detained for a variety of immigration reasons. UT students, alumni and professors will also be working with South Texas Civil Rights Project to aid Violence Against Women Act petitioners.

“For folks in the detention centers we’re helping people file their political asylum applications or helping unaccompanied minors who are in the United States try to find someplace,” Fernandez said. “For women being helped under the Violence Against Women Act, these are undocumented women who have been victims of violent acts and our assistance will help them to hopefully get some sort of legal immigration status in the United States.”

The UT Law Pro Bono Program was launched in 2009, and it is a project of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. The vision of the program is that all UT law students will engage in pro bono service during law school to increase access to justice and to develop a lifetime commitment to providing legal services to those in need.

“We do not require that students do pro bono service, however, we highly encourage it and we let them know that this is really a professional obligation of all lawyers, ” Fernandez said.

Along with the January trips, the UT Law Pro Bono Program provides many volunteer opportunities to meet students’ different skills and interests. Students that join the program sign a pledge to fulfill 50 hours of pro bono service by the time they graduate. Fernandez said that since they launched the pledge, an overwhelming percent of students sign the pledge every year.

Andrea Meza, a second year UT law student, will be traveling to the Valley with UT Law Pro Bono for the second time. Meza is on one of the group's planning committees, and is involved in organizing the DACA workshops.

Meza said the trips benefit students by giving them first-hand experience.

“The opportunity to do pro bono is really great for me because not only could I do community service but I could get practical legal experience,” Meza said. “But beyond the actual practical skills, you’re really gaining the ability to work with a client and empathize with a client, and get that hand-on experience that you don’t get in law school classes.”

To schedule a free appointment or find out more about the DACA clinics, contact the UT Law Pro Bono at 512-232-2990 or probono@law.utexas.edu.

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