December 12, 2011
For third-year law student Miranda Guerrero, the idea that the St. Mary’s School of Law would offer legal outreach to those in need along the Texas-Mexico border makes perfect sense. “This is the good stewardship that St. Mary’s is all about,” Guerrero said of the St. Mary’s Center for Legal and Social Justice’s work along the border.
St. Mary’s clinicians and their student lawyers routinely address the unmet legal needs of low income people in San Antonio and South Texas. Although they get plenty of cases in Bexar County, the Civil Justice Clinic also travels to the severely resource starved border region throughout the year, bringing law students and supervising attorneys to Eagle Pass and Laredo and taking on several new cases each trip.
“There were literally no legal services being offered there,” said Genevieve Hébert Fajardo, clinical professor. “It was Associate Dean Ana Novoa’s vision to expand our clinical program to that region and it really took off last year.” Since August 2010, the clinicians have opened 38 litigation, extended services or brief service cases from the border. In the same time period, they were able to offer legal advice on more than 50 other issues.
“We are unequivocally making a difference with these border clinics,” said Guerrero, a law student involved in the program. “Our work is deeply appreciated by the clients.”
Although immigration issues would seem the logical issue at hand, St. Mary’s is not staffed to handle that load. Students do, however, refer some immigration cases to the Center for Legal and Social Justice’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Instead, it is the new consumer fraud section that takes the majority of cases from the border towns.
“Our efforts at the border focus on providing legal services to one of the largest underserved populations in the state,” said Amanda Rivas, associate director of Practice Credit Programs, who has organized the clinic’s expansion to border communities. “We provide an opportunity to seek legal counsel in the areas of social security, property issues, consumer, and family law issues. We have seen an unfortunate increase in consumer fraud issues that only highlight their vulnerability if they continue to lack legal representation.”
The lack of English-speaking skills among this population increases the problems. “They feel ill-prepared to ask basic questions to get the help they need. We educate them on resources available to them,” said Guerrero. “We get a lot of landlord-tenant issues and consumer fraud, where people are simply victimized because of their lack of language skills.”
Each group making the trip is generally made up of four interpreters and eight students – mostly because that is all that will fit into the van. On clinic Saturdays, the students do intake with potential clients and take cases based on the answers to four questions: What is the issue? Can we help them? Do we have the resources? What can be done? In Eagle Pass, the group sets up at the Seco Mines Community Center. The center coordinator handles the logistics for the day, so the students can swoop in and begin the intake process.
“We just hustle in and begin seeing clients,” Guerrero said. During their October visit, the clinic students opened 10 new possible cases and counseled eight different existing clients, all in just three hours.
Guerrero, who has completed her student clinical hours is now a teaching assistant, serves as a mentor facilitating the process and advising students which legal codes to research and use before they present the case to their supervising professors. She is a trained social worker embarking on a second career through the Evening Law Program, and her social work skills often come in handy. For example, she helps fellow law students assist domestic violence victims who are upset and do not want to talk about their situations.
“I work with the students and help them relate to the clients. We have to let the victims know that, as difficult as it may be to relate this information, it is important for their agencies to know.”
The border clinics are so popular with law students that they have become a regular part of the clinical rotation. The clinical programs include the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, a Criminal Law Clinic and the Civil Justice Clinic, which the border law and consumer fraud programs fall under, have waiting lists for students wanting to participate. The civil clinic activities are funded through a grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.
“I absolutely love the clinic,” Guerrero said. “It is the perfect marriage of client advocacy and interface and applying classroom knowledge.”