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May 14, 2010

ABA Equal Justice Conference Opens in Arizona: Immigration Law, New Approaches to Legal Aid Top Agenda

Holding a standing room only crowd of more than 560 lawyers in a rapt hush, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sonia Nazario opened the Equal Justice Conference Thursday morning in Phoenix.  She related the harrowing experiences of child immigrants as they rode “trains of death” in making treks to reunite with family members and find a better life. Nazario is the author of Enrique’s Journey.

The plenary session of the Equal Justice Conference began with introductory remarks by A. Michael Pratt, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.  Pratt spoke to the need for pro bono work to work against discrimination, take care of the needy who need homes, and to aid victims of domestic violence and others who need it most. He spoke first hand about the jarring realities of racial profiling.  Finally, Pratt outlined the conference’s goal to examine the recently enacted and controversial Arizona law, challenge it and work to encourage the federal government to act on the issue and pass comprehensive immigration reform. 

Nazario acknowledged that many in the crowd came to the conference with mixed emotions because of the controversy, and said that she was there because of the importance of access to justice issues.  She mentioned the impetus for her book, namely learning that her housekeeper had left behind children in Guatemala to come to America so that she could better take care of them, sending money back to her native country. As it was, while in Guatemala, she could feed her children only once a day.

The writer learned that there are a small army of children from countries such as Mexico or — in the case of Enrique, Honduras — who come across the border and enter the United States alone, in order to try to find their mother or other family member.

The children trying to make this journey are generally penniless and have only a slip of paper with the phone number of their mother in their possession.  To make the trip, the children often jump on tops of freight trains.  There, the youth often encounter gangsters who rob them, beat them and steal their clothes.  

But the trains of death are only the beginning of the challenges the children face.

“I was amazed at the gritty determination” of these youth, many of whom trying as many as eight times to reach their mothers, said Nazario.

If and when the children reach the United States, and are apprehended by federal officials, they often go to court without an attorney.  Indeed, half of the 8,000 immigrant children coming to this country undocumented and alone have no counsel when their case is heart.

Despite what one hears and reads, the issue of immigration has “many shades of gray,” continued Nazario.  Children whose mothers have come to the United States often feel hate toward the adults who have left them. Immigrants would, by and large, prefer to stay in their home countries, with a familiar language and familiar surroundings.

The 12th annual Equal Justice Conference is going on as scheduled in Phoenix but with a vastly altered agenda that includes multiple sessions devoted to understanding the legal implications of a controversial new immigration measure signed into law by the state less than two weeks ago.

Attendees of the conference remain focused on improving access to justice for low-income Americans, and are learning new legal methods to combat such issues as predatory lending and foreclosures, and improving delivery of legal services in the midst of the recession. ABA President Carolyn Lamm delivered a keynote address on Friday, with Phoenix Mayor Phillip Gordon closing the conference with a Saturday morning speech.

Learn More About:  Access to JusticeImmigrationPro Bono