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Posted by: Elizabeth Todaro & Karla McKanders on Jan 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2013

Journal Name: January 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 1

Pro Bono’s Impact on Immigration

Volunteer lawyers in Tennessee are having a profound impact on the lives of young people who are eligible for a narrow but significant category of immigration status relief. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy offers relief that is temporary and can be revoked at any time. Eligibility is narrow and the application process can be time-consuming and expensive. Nevertheless, this initiative holds the promise of immense potential for the young people seeking assistance, especially when they have access to lawyers willing to assist with their applications.

One young person who has benefitted from pro bono support provided by these attorneys is Becca (not her real name). Becca is a sophomore at a large urban high school in Tennessee and an unauthorized immigrant who fits the criteria to apply for deferred action under DACA. When her parents came to the United States, they left Becca in the care of family members in Guatemala, sad and anxious but with the hope that she would join them as soon as possible. Becca was about seven when she was brought by her uncle to reunite with her parents in Nashville. She says that there have been challenges to being in Nashville and that she sometimes experiences racism and intolerance at school, but these encounters do not make her mad.

“People just don’t understand the desire and need to be with your family,” she says, explaining that “my parents came to Nashville because they wanted to work hard and help me have a better life.”

By any measure, Becca is a young woman to be admired. She works hard at school, makes good grades and has nearly perfect attendance, all things she had to carefully document for her DACA application. She is focused and determined to become a nurse. She does not just dream of this future, she is working hard to achieve it. However, in addition to all of the expected challenges she faces as an ambitious high school student, Becca also has to deal with the reality that no matter how hard she works, her options for the future may be extremely limited based on her immigration status.

In June 2012, the Obama administration announced DACA, the policy that would temporarily suspend the deportation of young people brought to the United States as children who also meet a number of other specific requirements that demonstrate their commitment to pursuing education and work and that they would otherwise be a low-priority for immigration enforcement.

Given her precarious situation, paired with her academic and professional aspirations, her family was closely following policy changes that might offer her a chance for a more secure future. The day the details of DACA were announced, her uncle and grandmother realized Becca fit the narrow eligibility requirements and soon helped her connect with lawyers providing pro bono assistance for young people making application under DACA.

“I have been so worried about how I would be able to go to college, so that is the first thing that I thought about,” Becca says about when she first met with the attorneys at the legal clinic.

Help Right Here at Home

The American Immigration Council estimates that in Tennessee there are more than 14,000 individuals who are (or may become) eligible for relief under DACA.[1] In response to this need, lawyers across the state have responded by establishing clinics to provide assistance to immigrants who are considering applying for deferred action. DACA offers a unique opportunity for attorneys willing to provide pro bono assistance to individuals applying for consideration under this new policy. Most applicants require some degree of legal assistance in completing the application and assembling the required documentation, but in most cases this assistance can be completed in a clinic setting and does not necessitate prolonged legal representation.

There are several places in the state offering free assistance in immigration matters: In Nashville there is Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors (TN-JFON); in Knoxville is the University of Tennessee College of Law’s Immigration Clinic; and in Memphis is the Community Legal Center.

JFON provides education, advocacy and free legal assistance to individuals who could not otherwise afford it. Working together with partners from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), Vanderbilt Law School and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), among others, JFON has assisted with more than 400 applications for relief under DACA at 15 Middle Tennessee clinics since the policy’s implementation in August 2012. The 74 volunteer attorneys involved with these clinics have provided nearly 600 hours of pro bono assistance.

This year is the inaugural year for the University of Tennessee College of Law’s Immigration Clinic. For several years, UT’s general advocacy clinic has been taking on immigration cases. However, based on student demand and the need for pro bono attorneys in east Tennessee, the law school decided to devote an entire clinic to addressing the legal needs of the immigrant community. In the clinic, students represent immigrants with mainly humanitarian-based petitions. The start of UT’s Immigration Clinic coincided with DACA, and according to estimates, up to 800 individuals in the Knoxville area may be eligible to apply. UT has sponsored training and clinics, engaging volunteer attorneys and giving law students the opportunity to work alongside them as they learn valuable skills.

“Participating in the deferred action clinic was a fulfilling experience because it was an opportunity to help an underserved population in our community,” says UT Immigration Clinic student Megan Swain. “But unfortunately, we couldn’t help everybody; it was heartbreaking to have to tell clients that they did not meet the narrow requirements for deferred action.”

The Community Legal Center also helped people with DACA applications. “These clients, as well as a number of other clients who we informed about DACA relief, were very excited to be able to finish school relieved of the burden of having to worry about being deported,” says the CLC’s executive director, Meg Jones.

Paying It Forward

Mo Syed is the president of the board for TIRRC, a lead partner in the recent trainings and information sessions related to the DACA clinics. Syed, himself an attorney whose practice includes immigration assistance, is especially interested in helping those navigating immigration applications.

“Because I have gone through [the immigration] process … it informs my interactions with clients,” Syed says. “When someone walks into my office, I understand why they may have anxiety and frustration; they are feeling what I felt going through the process.”

He points out that so many clients are at a disadvantage simply because they are not fluent in English, and even a small error or misstep can have huge implications.

“The applications may not be overly complicated but they can be formidable for the applicants, and lawyers have the skill-set and education needed to navigate the maze.” This is precisely why lawyers play such a vital role.

Syed explains that TIRRC’s role is not limited to providing assistance with applications but includes a broader goal of helping to “organize the community and build long-term power. So we are training community members, often DACA recipients themselves, to educate their own communities about DACA and who are leaders of a broader movement for basic human rights and fully engaged in the civic and political life of the state.”

Not only has JFON been able to assist Becca with her application for DACA but she is now a volunteer in these efforts as well. She has worked at legal clinics, providing administrative and translation support and much-needed emotional encouragement to others seeking assistance with their immigration status.

“I’m grateful that I can help others by sharing my experience,” she says. “It makes me feel good, and I realize that one person really can make a difference to others.”

Becca does not yet know if her application for deferred status has been approved or exactly how long she will have to wait to learn the outcome, but she says she is hopeful and very grateful to the caring staff and volunteers at the legal clinics who have given her the prospect that her dreams may become reality.

“I get excited thinking about it. To me, it will mean the opportunity to go to college, to drive a car without being afraid. It means I can have the job I want.”


  • Read a related article, “An Immigrant Lawyer’s Story,” by Mo Syed about his experience as an immigrating attorney at http:// www.tba.org/node/52576.
  • Get details for DACA eligibility from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at http://tinyurl.com/ 7ksa6of
  • JFON will host DACA legal clinics every month throughout the year. See the schedule at  http:// tnjfon.org/


1. ”Who and Where the DREAMers Are, Revised Estimates,” Immigration Policy Center of the American Immingration Council at http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/who-and-where-dreamers-are-revised-estimates

Liz Todaro LIZ TODARO is the access to justice and public education coordinator for the Tennessee Bar Association. She earned a bachelors degree in political science from Emory University and a law degree from the City University of New York Law School. She has more than 15 years of experience in the fields of domestic violence, family law, criminal justice, women’s issues, political advocacy and education reform.



Karla McKanders KARLA MCKANDERS is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Previously, at VillanovaUniversity School of Law, she served as a Reuschlein Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Clinic for Refugee Asylum and Emigrant Services (CARES), a law student clinical course where students handled asylum cases before immigration judges, asylum officers and the Board of Immigration Appeals. She received a Fulbright Scholar grant to lecture in 2011-2012 in Morocco and is currently a fellow at UT’s Center for the Study of Social Justice in the Migration and Refugee Studies group.