The State Bar of Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the American Bar Association, and others proudly support National Pro Bono Celebration Week (October 24-30). Pro Bono week is an opportunity to educate the public about the good work the legal community does to improve the lives of vulnerable Texans and to encourage more individuals to get involved in pro bono support of the legal system. During the week, we will feature stories of pro bono volunteers.
Fernanda Palacios Herrera is a 3L at St. Mary’s University School of Law and her hometown is San Juan Buenaventura, Mexico. She is a Pat Tillman Scholar, a member of the Immigration Law Student Association (former vice president, 2020- 2021), the Hispanic Law Student Association, former social chair (2020-2021) for the Public Interest Law Foundation, and a student attorney for the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. After law school, Palacios Herrera plans to practice immigration law.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I have been active in pro bono since 2012. While in undergrad, I helped organize free legal clinics for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients and volunteered at citizenship drives and free legal clinics in Austin. In 2018, while working at Refugee Services of Texas, I collaborated with the University of Texas Immigration clinic to organize free Temporary Protected Status renewals.
While in law school, I have continued my service and community involvement by volunteering at various immigration nonprofits. The majority of my pro bono work during law school has been with asylum seekers. During my first spring break in law school, I volunteered at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, preparing country conditions, asylum briefs, and asylum applications. I have also had the opportunity to assist Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and AT&T attorneys with their pro bono Migrant Protection Protocols cases while interning for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, or HRI.
During my time at HRI, I was introduced to Lawyers For Good Government’s Project Corazon, an organization on the ground in Matamoros, Mexico, assisting migrants. Since connecting with Charlene D’Cruz, the director of Project Corazon, I have been actively volunteering with them doing country condition research, asylum applications, and helping create asylum application educational modules to train pro bono attorneys nationwide.
Why is pro bono important to you?
Pro bono is important because everyone needs an advocate. I come from a low-income family, and I have seen how dire pro bono services are for my community. Legal services are often too expensive, and those who need them most cannot afford them. For that reason, after getting my first glimpse of pro bono work, I have continued serving, especially with immigration. Additionally, after working at immigration nonprofits, I learned that there are nowhere near enough attorneys providing free or low-cost legal services, which needs to change.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
Pro bono has taught me that the need for services is never-ending, and we must always help in some way. Through pro bono, I have met the most resilient, strong-willed, and most amazing people. When my family needed legal services, they received them through free legal clinics. For that reason, among many others, I want to continue giving back to the community the services my family benefited from. Additionally, pro bono has served as my reminder of why I am in law school. When I feel discouraged, I remember how many people need public interest attorneys. Remembering that I can help others helps me push through the many challenges in law school.
What would you say to a fellow student who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
Just do it! Pro bono is so rewarding and no matter how many hours or how much pro bono you do, you are helping someone in need. Pro bono will not only help you identify your passion and build skills, but it will also help you get to know the community that surrounds you.
Being in law school is a privilege, and there is no better way to use the skills we learn than to use them to help people in need. The demand for free legal representation is greater than the number of attorneys willing to provide these services. However, with your help and the help of our peers, we can reach more people who otherwise might go without legal representation because of their inability to pay.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
I have many favorite pro bono stories, but because immigration cases last many years, I have not witnessed the majority of their outcomes. Last year while volunteering with Project Corazon, I helped a single mother and her small son apply for asylum. They were from Central America and had been in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, for nearly a year. While filling out her asylum application, she vividly described the horrendous things she and her son went through in their native country. Her voice was shaky, and it would break as she recounted the traumatizing events, but she finished every story with happiness in her voice, saying that she was better now. She was strong, resilient, full of love, grateful for life, and the happiest person I have met, even though she had such a sad story. I worked hard on her asylum application and kept in touch with her for a while. I hope she is doing well, but unfortunately, it saddens me to think of the terrible reality of MPP.