AILA Presents the Artesia Pro Bono Volunteers with the 2015 Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award

Advocacy Award

Saturday, June 20, 2015

George Tzamaras
Belle Woods

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) will award the Artesia Pro Bono Volunteers with the 2015 Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award for outstanding efforts in providing pro bono representation in the immigration field. The award will be accepted on behalf of all the volunteers by Christina Brown and Vanessa Sischo today during AILA's Annual Conference in National Harbor, MD.

Bestowing this award on a group this large is unprecedented but so is their remarkable effort. The Artesia Pro Bono Project came to life in a remote detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico, when the federal government chose to set up a "deportation mill" and rush children and moms fleeing to the U.S. for safety through removal proceedings.

Just ten days after the first deportations from Artesia, a handful of lawyers materialized. These first attorneys to arrive on-the-ground (or OTG as they would come to be known) engaged in a triage of immense proportions. Between 400 to 500 women and children were in the detention center at any one time, none of them had been screened by attorneys to evaluate their cases, and there was no telephone access. The only place to meet with the detainees was the front half of a double-wide trailer. The children were sick. There was no support infrastructure. But now, there were lawyers.

This sort of guerrilla lawyering had never been done before; the volunteer attorneys made a promise to every mother and to every child detained in Artesia: if you are detained in Artesia, we will be your lawyers. Those OTG reached out to the staff of the American Immigration Council, the law firm of Jones Day, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to form a working plan for a pro bono representation service. Essentially, they needed to set up a pro bono law firm in a remote town that could accommodate dozens of lawyers in the midst of serving hundreds of women, many of whom were on the cusp of being deported without any access to legal assistance or due process. Staff and volunteers worked nearly around the clock to organize the project. Office space was located in a local church, interview and intake processes were put into place, calendar, docketing, and case management systems were implemented, and a liaison process was initiated to address concerns about due process, living conditions and attorney access to the facility.

Over 21 weeks, the Artesia Pro Bono Project evolved from a loose coalition of attorneys faintly affiliated by their common AILA membership into Team Artesia?-?the concept that no one goes it alone. During those 21 weeks, the Artesia Pro Bono Project facilitated the representation of more than 600 women and their children.

Attorneys, paralegals, law students and college students left their lives for up to two weeks at a time to head to Artesia to provide a voice for the voiceless; to fight the unjust machine of family detention. These volunteers and eventually two full-time project staff, Christina Brown and Vanessa Sischo, worked an average of 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. No cases went unrepresented. No clients fell through the cracks. Although it is difficult to calculate the actual hours spent representing and advocating for the more than 600 cases the project served, the more than 250 volunteers clocked in at well over 20,000 hours.

Other volunteers "off the ground" provided critical legal research, located experts to testify as needed, or participated on the "remote bond team" charged with preparing complex packages to be submitted to the immigration court prior to a bond hearing-often argued by yet another volunteer attorney. The American Immigration Council created a fundraising system to allow anyone to donate to this effort. Through the generosity of Council donors, over $40,000 was raised in just a few weeks.

After nearly six months of operation, the Artesia Family Residential Center officially closed its doors on December 18, 2014. Despite the closure of Artesia, the detention of families seeking asylum in the United States continues in places like Karnes, Berks, and Dilley.

To date, the project has helped 16 women successfully present their petitions for asylum, out of 20 petitions heard on the merits. Despite a severely restrictive "high bond/no bond" policy (that the government was enjoined in February from using any further), the project helped hundreds of families bond out to be able to join their families here in America. In short, the project effectively caused the government to close down an unjust temporary detention facility that sprung up for the sole purpose of deporting women and children under cover of "darkness" and from a part of the country where no one would notice. Immigration attorneys and advocates across the country chose not to let that stand and the result was this most extraordinary pro bono effort, the likes of which no one expected, no one envisioned, and no one can now imagine we could do without.


The American Immigration Lawyers Association is the national association of immigration lawyers established to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 15062094.