By Latonia Haney Keith
McDermott Will & Emery
As we near National Pro Bono Week, scheduled for Oct. 21 to Oct. 27, I wanted to recount the inspiring story of our pro bono community's response to the overwhelming demand for assistance from immigrants seeking to apply for status under what I call the Obama administration's "Little DREAM." Though Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which offered a path to citizenship to those immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, on June 15, the Obama administration announced a policy to defer removal action against childhoodarrivals as temporary relief for many DREAM Act-eligible youth. Under this process, qualifying individuals will not be removed from the United States for a two-year period, subject to renewal and will have the opportunity to apply for employment authorization.
Illinois alone is home to about 75,000 DREAM Act-eligible individuals, many of whom require pro bono assistance to apply for "deferred action." When the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it would begin accepting applications on Aug. 15, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) banded together to organize a DREAM Relief Workshop at Navy Pier's Grand Ballroom to help deferred, action-eligible individuals navigate the application process on the very first day they could apply. As 5,000 applicants were expected to attend the workshop, ICIRR began actively seeking volunteers to assist on the day of the event. That's when I became involved, mobilizing lawyers to participate.
Given our billable demands, lawyers like to participate in pro bono workshops that are well-organized, straightforward and offer detailed training prior to volunteering. So, when the pro bono community learned that USCIS would not release a copy of the application until the morning of Aug. 15, panic set in. If the application was not released prior to Aug. 15, ICIRR would not be afforded ample time to digest the application and provide meaningful training to volunteers.
Over the course of the next several days, ICIRR and NIJC worked incredibly hard to negotiate the release of the application. Unfortunately, when the application was not released by noon on Aug. 13, ICIRR was forced to cancel its training session. When the morning of Aug. 14, came and went, I was convinced that we would have to cancel the final training session and all the planning for the workshop would be for naught.
Then, at noon, on Aug. 14, USCIS released the application, which lit a fire under all of us to mobilize and train, as best we could, as many volunteers as possible. ICIRR sent an e-mail at 1 p.m. to its volunteers, informing them that it was going to hold training sessions at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at McDermott Will & Emery's offices. Due to the short time frame, we were not expecting a large turnout. To my surprise, when I arrived at the training session shortly before 3 p.m., the room was full, with close to 100 people in attendance.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Fred Tsao, policy director at ICIRR, rushed into the conference room laden with a huge box filled to the top with copies of the application and launched into an impromptu training on the requirements and nuances in the application. Then, shortly before 5:30 p.m., another wave of volunteers appeared. Close to 150 people showed up, but now Fred was in his stride, answering questions and preparing volunteers.
The next day, as I turned in to Navy Pier at 6:30 a.m., I was in awe at the number of deferred action applicants already waiting in line. As I made my way to the Grand Ballroom at the end of the pier, it was apparent that individuals had been waiting for hours as they huddled together attempting to nap before the doors officially opened at 9 a.m. I later learned that people started lining up beginning at 5 p.m. on Tuesday and that at least 13,000 individuals showed up for assistance.
Upon walking into the ballroom, I was taken aback by the hundreds of volunteers who showed up to help, including a robust team of McDermott lawyers. I was incredibly impressed by ICIRR and NIJC's ability to mobilize so many volunteers on such short notice. I was even more in awe by the pro bono volunteers' willingness to step up to participate in this historic event.
After a quick briefing about what to except during the day, we armed ourselves with applications and pens. And then, the applicants entered the room. It was an overwhelming and exhilarating experience. Within minutes, the room was packed with applicants who patiently waited while volunteers directed them to the correct group of tables to complete the application, discuss their documentation or set up a subsequent meeting. Though at the end of the day, I certainly felt as though I ran a marathon. I was reinvigorated by the tremendously grateful applicants that I had the privilege to meet and assist. It was truly amazing to hear the applicants express their desire to work and contribute to society.
Due to the overwhelming demand, we were only able to complete applications for 1,500. As we head into National Pro Bono Week, I encourage each of you to contact NIJC and stand up to help a DREAMer and change someone's life.