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How North Texans Are Helping Central American Children

Stella M. Chávez
Bill Holston, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, says his organization and the Hispanic Bar Association are telling attorneys they can volunteer and provide free legal services to children coming from Central America.

When 2000 children from Central America come to North Texas later this month, they’ll be greeted by a burgeoning army of volunteers. Here's how local organizations are responding to folks who want to help.

For the past few weeks, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, has received 10 or so phone calls a day from attorneys asking what they can do to help the unaccompanied children coming from the border.

Executive Director Bill Holston said he’s used to hearing from attorneys offering their services.

“But what's different is we're getting contacted by lawyers who have never expressed interest in pro bono before,” Holston said. “And firms that although they've done work for us in the past or [expressed] interest, they have lawyers in those firms that are for the first time interested in volunteering.”

The Human Rights Initiative has also heard from psychologists offering counseling or medical evaluations. Holston said he’s had trouble recruiting psychologists in the past.

His small staff has provided free legal services for immigrants since 2000. It recently teamed up with the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association and, for the past year, it’s been providing free services to children in a shelter run by Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. The shelter recently announced it planned to expand to 32 beds.

Holston said attorneys will be crucial when the kids arrive in Dallas County.

“Because some of those kids are going to places that don't have robust pro-bono programs,” Holston said. “So it may be [that] the only legal information they ever receive will be whatever screening or know your rights presentations take place there at the shelter.”

Rocio Cristina Garcia is a real estate attorney with the Perkins Coie law firm who volunteers as co-chair of the unaccompanied minors action committee for the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association. She said you don’t have to be an immigration attorney to help out.

“What we’re trying to do is be a voice for these children, for these unaccompanied minors, and we’re doing this by organizing all of our volunteers,” she said.

Garcia has been organizing training sessions in which attorneys learn to screen children in detention centers and shelters and how to represent them in court. They’re also trained how to teach children and families their legal rights.

“We’re looking for just anyone willing to help these children, anyone who is an attorney willing to help these children,” Garcia said.

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, just got back from a trip to the border. His group has been working with churches and agencies in the area providing showers and laundry services. He said he still doesn’t know how his volunteers will help in Dallas County.

“We just tell people to watch our website, watch the media, watch the news,” Henderson said. “We’re just in a holding pattern waiting to see where we can fit.”

Meanwhile, the Cathedral Shine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in downtown Dallas, announced it’s sponsoring a “welcome box” drive for the children. Volunteers can include things like shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush inside a shoe box and drop it off at the church.