WASHINGTON -- Cat Kim, a recent graduate from Columbia Law School, had two missions this summer. One was studying for and taking the California bar exam. The other was preparing cases for immigrant women and children in Texas detention centers who, without the help of people like her, could be deported.
After taking the bar in July, Kim planned a trip -- not to celebrate taking the test, like some of her peers -- but to volunteer her time at a family immigrant detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
"I'm sure my Facebook feed will be full of people in Europe or in Hawaii or the Caribbean or whatever come August," Kim said last month. "Me and my roommate from law school, we're taking our money and we're going to Texas to work 12 hours a day in a detention center."
Not that Kim's complaining; this will be her third trip to Texas. She's part of a massive effort by the legal community, including students and young lawyers, to offer free help to some of the tens of thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. Many of them end up in family detention in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.
The women and children in the detention centers often can't afford lawyers, but legal representation can make the difference between being sent back to dangerous conditions in their home country or staying in the U.S. to plead their case for deportation relief.
"There's so much need. It's kind of like we're constantly operating in crisis mode, because everything is life or death," Kim said.
People facing immigration proceedings, including children, have no guarantee of legal representation. Yet those who do get help are far more likely to be allowed to remain in the U.S., according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigration courts closed more than 12,000 cases of women and children without representation by the end of June, versus about 2,000 cases with representation. Of the families that went up against the court system by themselves, 97.7 percent received a deportation order. For the smaller number of families with legal representation, 67.1 percent of the cases ended in a deportation order and 32.9 percent of the cases ended with a decision for the families to stay.
Women and children with representation have been 14 times more likely to get relief in the cases decided so far. Advocates don't think this is because other families have a weaker case.
"It is so difficult to navigate the system," said Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and Kim's former professor. "Women and children are expected to defend themselves in court with a judge present, and their opponent is a trained lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security."
"All of the odds are stacked against these kids and against these women in these immigration proceedings," she said.
Much of the work by volunteer lawyers and students is organized by the CARA Pro Bono project, a collaboration between the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
About 500 people have worked on the project, and there are new volunteers every week, organizers say. Some volunteers are on the ground at the detention facilities, while many others provide backup from afar -- preparing documents, keeping track of cases and gathering information.
In addition to taking her law students to Dilley, Mukherjee has put together a remote team to prepare for merits hearings for women who were previously deported, working in tandem with Yale Law School students Conchita Cruz, 29, and Swapna Reddy, 28.
Cruz said they've organized about 30 volunteers, many of whom are her law school classmates. They send out a list of things that need to be done -- translating interviews, preparing affidavits and drafting briefs -- and people pick up the different tasks. Yale's Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women’s Rights is covering the costs, such as printing and making phone calls abroad.
Working at an internship during the day and contributing to the project on nights and weekends, Cruz puts in around 20 hours a week in her spare time, she said. Her background in one of the things that motivates her: Cruz's mother was a Cuban refugee and her father is from Guatemala, one of the countries women and children are fleeing.
"I have a lot of personal investment," she said.
The same is true for Aminta Menjivar, 24, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 10. Menjivar is undocumented, but is allowed to work and remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Her immigration lawyer is Laura Lichter, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who has done extensive pro bono work at family detention facilities. When Menjivar told Lichter she wanted to find a way to help others, the attorney told her about the CARA project.
Menjivar went to Dilley twice this summer to help prepare women for credible fear interviews, where immigration authorities determine whether they can move forward in seeking asylum or other relief. She isn't a lawyer, but was able to do intake and talk to the women, and she's planning to do more remote work, such as interpreting over the phone.
A graduate of the University of Denver, Menjivar said the work in Dilley is an outgrowth of her efforts to encourage other undocumented immigrants to attend college like she did. She eventually wants to get a master's degree.
"I focused on empowering youth when I was [at the University of Denver], and now I'm making that transition from just trying to help immigrant youth to doing some of the bigger things -- like trying to find out why are women being compelled to make that dangerous trek from their countries of origin to the United States," Menjivar said.
Some fellowship programs, such as Immigrant Justice Corps, also support free legal services for immigrants. The New York-based organization, launched a year ago, enables law school and four-year university graduates to spend two years doing immigration work -- basically, it's a Teach for America-like program for immigration law. Fellows take time off from their regular work to go to family detention centers in Texas for two week stretches and provide legal help there.
"In south Texas, it was really jarring to see the conditions of the mothers and children in the facility and just to think about how families who have already experienced significant trauma are almost being re-traumatized in a prison -- what they call a 'residential center,'" said Jessica Rofe, 30, a fellow who joined in 2014 after graduating from New York University Law School.
The three families Rofe worked with have now been released, she said, either because of her team's efforts or because immigration policy is shifting away from detention.
"To look at what was happening in Texas, and see very young children and their mothers in jail with no lawyer -- for us at Immigrant Justice Corps, it seemed so obvious that we had to go down there and pitch in," said Rachel Tiven, the group's executive director.