We’ve had a busy year at RAICES. We are grateful to our community, staff and supporters throughout these difficult times. As the year draws to a close, we wanted to share an update from the ground.
Our mission has always been the same: We provide legal services to refugees and immigrants, and we advocate for policies and practices that will help us accomplish that goal. These past few months have been no different – we continue to expand our legal aid to migrants throughout Texas, and have been particularly aggressive in expanding our advocacy for immigrants and policies that will help them anywhere in the country.
The summer of 2018 began when we learned about the largest single funding cut we have ever suffered. Before we were the recipients of the largest fundraiser in Facebook’s history we survived largely on government grants and early this summer we learned that the Trump administration had decided, just as it ramped up its separation policy, to halt funding for released children in our Dallas office. It appeared to us and to many others that this was the first step to stripping away the services that we provide to not only released unaccompanied children but also detained. Our worst case scenario had arrived. We would have no choice but to begin winding down our programs, laying off staff and trying to find a way to survive.
They provided a spark that lit a renewed fight in RAICES.
Within twenty-four hours of receiving this harsh news – and the dark omen it presented – the team had prepared a plan to continue all operations at full staffing and proposed a fund to raise money to fill the gap. That planning led to the LEAF fund, a program to provide legal representation to children that wouldn’t be dependent on government funding. And it was that fund that a woman in California, Charlotte Willner, stumbled upon one evening. The rest, as they say, is history. Charlotte and her husband Dave started something that continues to this day. It was a gift from those who did not want to see families separated. Our legal team, our case workers, our administrative staff, every single one of us know that with this gift comes responsibility, and we work in the knowledge that it is our duty to respect and fulfill that.
In 2018, RAICES hired 137 new employees, including 80 for our legal programs (40 attorneys and 40 legal assistants) to strengthen the organization’s capacity to provide free legal services to clients across the State of Texas. Of all new 2018 hires, 90 have been on-boarded since June 1, allowing us to build the internal infrastructure needed to match the scope and scale of work planned for 2019.
These lawyers haven’t stopped working. Our children’s program accepted over 400 cases this year alone. They’ve provided “know your rights” trainings to over 4,500 children inside detention centers. In one detention center, Karnes, the family detention team provided legal counsel to 4,213 family units and to 8,169 children. In total, they spent 26,000 hours providing legal services at the Karnes detention center. We also facilitated 147 pro-bono attorneys at Karnes – a total of 8,697 volunteer- and attorney-hours supporting our work there.
Our resettlement team helped, from October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018, 156 refugees to resettle into new communities. From October 1, 2018 until December 10, 2018, they supported an additional 45 refugees with their resettlement. The team also enrolled 73 children in schools ranging from preschool to high school.
With an increase in programs, staff, and number of local offices, there came a need to increase administrative support personnel as well. Staffing up teams like finance, development, and operations creates the base for sustainable programs, strengthening internal processes and autonomy from any one funding source.
We’ve staffed up our internal teams to ensure fiscal responsibility. The “gold standard” in non-profit accounting auditing, RSM Financial, was contracted to independently evaluate and assess the accounting staff and procedures. Audit findings indicated low-risk for fraud and zero theft or misuse, and recommendations were implemented to maximize efficiency.
Additionally, with the new organizational chart, a chief administration officer with 15 years of experience with non-profits has been appointed to provide additional oversight and guidance to the finance team. The newly-hired CFO brings experience from a non-profit hospital with eight consecutive years of comment-free audit reports.
RAICES opened three new offices since July in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio this year. We now have 10 offices across Texas. Through these additions, we were able to increase free services we provide to unaccompanied children through the Legal Representation, Education, and Advocacy Fund (LEAF), increase the number of attorneys available in Family Detention Services, and reduce the burden of payment for low-income clients in our Community Immigration Services program. We are offering free legal representation in each of our locations for separated family units and unaccompanied children. We also launched two new legal programs – both focused on expanding our reach for offering free legal representation to families that were separated beyond our office locations. We are creating a broader support network for clients nationwide through pro-bono referrals coupled with technical assistance. And now we are working on offering a third option for those locations where we cannot offer direct legal representation and pro bono assistance. We created the Legal Defense Fund from which we can pay a stipend amount for fully vetted and qualified low-bono attorneys to accept cases. We are also finalizing a process in which we can provide services and referrals to social service assistance to the families we are representing. We know that legal representation is one of many issues that the immigrant families face and we would like to make sure we can help the families find the help they need.
Our bond program has been busy. RAICES has paid out over $2 million to get 270 people out of detention (we previously reported the number was $2.1m however $147k worth bonds we’ve paid were declined by ICE) and we are working on aiding those who live outside Texas. In November 2018, we launched our Pro-Bono Assistance and Mentoring Program. Led by an attorney with over 10 years of immigration law experience, this program provides mentorship and technical assistance to pro-bono attorneys giving legal representation to families separated by the Zero Tolerance Policy and released to live outside of the State of Texas.
The Families Together Program, also launched in November, will coordinate case placement with pro-bono attorneys at a national level and will administer a fund for “low bono” representation in parts of the country that do not have an existing pro-bono infrastructure.
Our advocacy team has also been busy. We have grown our communications and advocacy infrastructure to engage thousands of new individual donors and individuals eager to shape the national narrative on immigration and refugee rights. RAICES has grown our Twitter followers this year from 2,000 followers to 77,000, secured more national news coverage than at any point in the organization’s history, built video procedures and workflows to operationalize the team for an upcoming period of growth, and produced and released multiple videos that significantly outperformed anything previously made by the organization, including this recent animation video which has more views than any RAICES video ever made and was shared by over 5,000 people. We worked with The Guardian on this in depth story highlighting over 3,000 families detained. Five of our women leaders staff were featured in this profile and our head of Education and Reach on Huffington Post. We went to D.C. and hosted an event with senior politicians including Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker. We used our public presence to advocate for tech accountability by rejecting a large donation from Salesforce because they continue to provide technology to CBP, our efforts were reported by NPR, BBC, the Guardian, and countless others.
Our organization’s public presence has benefited our clients immeasurably. To give just one example of many: recently, we invited a group of journalists to immigration court in El Paso. The immigration judge, who had previously demonstrated animosity towards our clients by denying attorney preparation time and displaying disregard for their situation, swiftly changed course and began issuing continuances for all our cases, improving our clients’ chances in court.
It’s important that we show the public what our clients and other migrants are suffering and encourages them to humanize migrants. RAICES presents a face and a real story to the headlines, creating a human connection to the immigration issue. This work has directly impacted a system where decisions happen away from the public, behind closed doors.
In November, members of the RAICES media team who were working on a story about the wider caravan met La Comunidad, a group of self-organized LGBTQ+ members of the caravan who formed a group because they were facing discrimination from the wider caravan. Collectively, we made the decision to help them complete their journey to the border. We secured shelter and sent attorneys, legal assistants, and outreach staff to Tijuana, MX to aid La Comunidad.
We have done considerable work coordinating resources, supplies, and services like food, security, medicine, and mental health services. To date, we are actively engaged in this important binational work and have developed valuable partnerships with other organizations engaged in similar work. Our work with La Comunidad has been featured in the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Buzzfeed, Rolling Stones, the New York Times, and many other outlets.
Our Education and Outreach Team (E+O) has spent the last six months working intensively to advance the mission of RAICES by strengthening and amplifying our messaging via outreach activities, community education and advocacy. Serving RAICES internally and externally, E+O is the bridge between legal services and community engagement. Our San Antonio, Austin, and Corpus Christi volunteer coordinating teams have engaged 4,623 volunteers, worked with over 300 youth through outreach activities, collaborated with 15 schools, completed 38 know your rights trainings, and conducted over 23 community presentations. Our RAICES Bus Station Project has supported over 3,000 adults and 4,000 children this year. In 2019, E+O plans to increase their number of know your rights trainings in the community and increase legal clinic efforts. We are also looking forward to our future [email protected] events which will cover a variety of topics including Texas Legislature, a college night for undocumented youth, an update on current immigration issues, and more.
We are proud our our team efforts which in the ten days alone supported the effort to get #JusticeForJakelin, sued the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for its immoral and illegal asylum policy, sued the Trump administration for the new asylum rules , created a video to give asylum seekers critical information for when they arrive at the border, brought the actor and activist Alyssa Milano to the Karnes detention center and El Paso court, and continued serving the needs of our clients at Karnes and the tent camp in Tornillo.
We are now, more than ever, able to meet the onslaught coming from the present administration. We have the resources needed to provide legal aid while establishing a strong foundation to make RAICES a preeminent national immigrants’ rights organization.
It’s been an exhausting year but we’re looking forward to the next one, when we’ll fight even harder for the rights of immigrants.