Yesterday I reminded us that this is the week designated as the National Pro Bono Celebration. To participate in the celebration, I am posting a few stories about one of Arizona’s longest-running success stories, one that has persuaded many lawyers to provide pro bono representation to those in need.

There are a few words that legal service providers rarely hear. But when they are uttered, they go a long way toward lightening heavy burdens.

Those words, of course, are “How can I help?” and at least one provider is pleased to report that the sentence has been directed at them more than usual this year. Despite that, the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project wants lawyers to know that they can call—anytime.

Why have they been receiving an upswing in calls? More on that in a moment. But first, we asked Florence staff to describe their need for lawyer assistance.

“In Arizona, about 3,000 people are detained [by Immigration & Customs Enforcement] every night,” says Thalassa Kingsnorth. “Of those, about 200 are kids.”

Kingsnorth is an attorney with the Florence Project. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Florence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal service organization providing free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security in Arizona. Although the government assists indigent criminal defendants and civil litigants through public defenders and legal aid attorneys, it does not provide attorneys for people in immigration removal proceedings. As a result, an estimated 90 percent of the detained people go unrepresented due to poverty. The Florence Project strives to address this inequity both locally and nationally through direct service, partnerships with the community, and advocacy and outreach efforts.

Their adult programs try to provide access to justice for indigent men and women detained in ICE custody in Florence and Eloy, Ariz. And their Detained Immigrant and Refugee Children’s Initiative “educates, empowers, and provides legal assistance to all unaccompanied minors in ICE custody and going before the Phoenix immigration court.”

Florence’s two other programs are:

  • The Integrated Social Services Program, which “offers supportive social services for some of the most vulnerable detained individuals, including the mentally ill, survivors of torture, asylum seekers, domestic violence victims, and parents at immediate risk of losing custody of their U.S. Citizen children.”
  • The Arizona Defending Immigrants Program, which “provides training, consultation and support to Arizona public defenders about the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.”

Since September 1, Kingsnorth has been the full-time Pro Bono Coordinator for the Florence Project. If Arizona is on the front line of America’s immigration quandary, then “Tally” Kingsnorth is one of a group of people working hard to assist its casualties. And her first-aid kit? Legal assistance, usually in short supply.

Her job includes recruiting and training volunteers, mentoring and placing immigration cases with lawyers and firms.

Tally reminds me that there is no right to representation in immigration proceedings, and the Florence Project is the only free information and advocacy resource available to those detained.

“We have six staff attorneys,” she points out—one lawyer for every 750 people.

Because of those daunting numbers, most of the detainees proceed pro se—representing themselves—but with intensive support from the Florence Project. In that effort, the staff provide mentoring, teach “know your rights” seminars, and assist with motions.

Given the mass of people, actual direct representation is possible in only two instances: in children’s cases (“All of our kids are represented,” Kingsnorth says), and in those that Florence determines are “especially in need of representation.”

Kingsnorth has hosted brown-bag lunches at law firms to explain the process and perhaps to recruit lawyers to help. In her line of work, it is crucial to build relationships with attorneys who may want to help but are hesitant. It can be slow and methodical work. But that is why this past summer was so surprising.

“Since about May,” says Kingsnorth, “every week we have gotten a cold call from a lawyer asking how they could get involved.” That was the rare but welcome “How can I help?” query.

What accounted for that, we asked.

Kingsnorth pauses and says she can’t be sure. But then she says that some of the lawyers have bemoaned Arizona’s new and notorious immigration-criminal law, called SB1070.

“Some have said, ‘This legislation is really mean-spirited; I want to do something.’”

Until this past April, Kingsnorth says, the Florence Project has had more cases than attorneys. But since then, more attorneys have been offering to help fill the legal-needs gap.

Is the gap filled? Nowhere near, says Kingsnorth. And that’s why she still is on the lookout for those lawyers and firms that step up when others step back.

Later this week: We speak with a few lawyers about their experience with the Florence Project, and find out what kind of attorney volunteer Florence is looking for. And we answer the question that we hope is becoming your own: How can I help?

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