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Honduran mother and child with a Border Patrol agent. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Why attorneys represent immigrants for free

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Scores of lawyers, paralegals and law students are volunteering to help immigrant families caught in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s bid to drastically reduce the number of people without papers in the U.S. One of these movement’s highest priorities is assisting the more than 2,500 children separated from their parents in government custody.

Mobilized by the American Bar Association, nonprofits like Lawyers for Good Government, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and big law firms like Paul, Weiss and Kirkland and Ellis, these legal professionals are providing services “pro bono” – for free.

Pro bono is shorthand for “pro bono publico,” a Latin expression that means “for the public good.” Working pro bono simply means rendering professional services voluntarily without charge.

The ethic dates back to Roman times, when patrician men dispensed patronage as counselors and representatives to their relatives and servants.

In the U.S., working pro bono is also rooted in the English sense of “noblesse oblige” – the elite’s obligation to act generously toward the less privileged. Doing this unpaid work is not just encouraged but expected.

The American Bar Association encourages all lawyers to volunteer at least 50 hours of pro bono service per year. Attorneys may use this time to represent the poor in court or help charities address legal issues. They may also spend this time changing laws for the better.

Some states go further. In New York, for example, law students must spend 50 hours doing pro bono work before they can be admitted to the bar.

The lawyer shortage

There’s a good reason for mandates like that as the need for free legal help goes well beyond the current immigration crisis.

The problem is not that we don’t have enough lawyers.

With 1.3 million lawyers nationwide, one for every 245 Americans, the U.S. is the country with the most lawyers on the planet. Yet because it usually costs around US$100-400 to hire one, four-fifths of poor Americans and up to three-fifths of middle-class Americans with a civil legal problem can’t afford an attorney.

In my home state of Montana, where I teach law and lawyering, some 77 percent of poor households needing an attorney, more than 14,000 per year, do not get one because they can’t afford it.

The throngs of lawyers aiding immigrants along the border and across the country are needed for another reason besides their clients’ inability to pay.

Everyone present in the U.S. has a right to due process regardless of their immigration status. But because most immigration cases are civil rather than criminal in nature, undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings have no right to an attorney.

The government does provide detained immigrants with some crucial information through a program it nearly eliminated in the spring of 2018. But this assistance falls short of what asylum-seekers and other undocumented people require.

So the only way many people attempting to cross the border without papers can get the legal representation they need is when pro bono lawyers and other volunteers fill this gap.

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