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When the Rivard Report visited the offices of the nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services on Thursday, a number of people stood in line to speak to the receptionist while several others waited for their appointments.
The busy office environment has become the norm for RAICES, which had been quietly helping immigrants with various legal issues since 1986 but was thrust into the spotlight after a Facebook campaign intended to raise $1,500 to help detained immigrants on the border went viral and has netted the nonprofit more than $20 million. For a nonprofit that previously operated on a $6 million annual budget, the push to use those donations as quickly and efficiently as possible has been great.
Most of the funds have gone toward hiring attorneys and developing new initiatives to help serve the thousands of children who have been separated from their parents after crossing the southern U.S. border. RAICES staff includes around 50 attorneys, who currently manage caseloads of anywhere from 60 to 80 individuals and families at a time, with each case varying in complexity. Before the zero-tolerance immigration policy was instituted, a RAICES attorney might see up to five people. Now, it’s eight, with a subsequent increase in caseload.
However, many attorneys throughout the country have reached out to RAICES offering pro-bono work, which has allowed the nonprofit to strengthen the Family Reunification and Bond fund, geared toward covering the full cost of bonds to release parents. And the influx of donations has allowed that fund to extend outside the state of Texas.
The minimum bond set for a single detained immigrant is $1,500, but fees could be as much as $10,000.
“We are working to maximize the offers [to give] free legal services so that we can maximize the donations in general,” Katie Mullins, staff attorney with RAICES in San Antonio said. “If we have an attorney who is willing to work for free, we … can use that money to pay someone’s bond instead.”
RAICES also is depositing money in commissary accounts for detainees so they can call family members and begin the process of tracking their children. The nonprofit also is exploring options to provide transportation to clients.
Mullins said in many cases when immigrants are released from a detention center they are dropped off at a bus station in the middle of the night with nothing.
“You can imagine for someone who was just locked up and doesn’t have anything – What are they supposed to do?” she said. “Without a bus ticket or a cell phone, they are stranded.”
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On Thursday, RAICES announced a new initiative called the “National Families Together Hotline” to aid in reuniting families that have been separated upon entry into the United States. Callers can speak to one of 120 recently trained volunteers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days week, and leave voicemails 24 hours a day.
“We have always been swamped, and we expect it will get crazier for everyone,” Mullins said. “[But] we are rallying to serve [immigrant families], whether its through an attorney at our office or scrambling to find a pro-bono attorney, and are working to provide more services at no cost.”