In March, young attorneys Katelyn Leese and Alissa Cooley told Desert Companion that they were worried the program they worked for — representing undocumented immigrant children in the U.S. legal process — would end if they didn’t find some funding beyond the Justice AmeriCorps grant that paid for their services at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic. They didn’t want their vulnerable young clients to end up with no one to guide them through the arcane workings of immigration court.
“We’ve built relationships and trust with these kids, and a lot of times, we’re the only stable figure in their lives,” Cooley said at the time. “I’d feel bad walking away, handing them off to someone they don’t know.”
Though both she and Leese have moved on to other positions now (Leese is doing similar work in California, and Cooley is working for a criminal defense firm), they’ll undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that local attorney Ed M. Bernstein has answered their financial prayers for the child immigrant program. Bernstein is donating $250,000 to be used over five years for staff and operational costs. The donation will be added to the Justice AmeriCorps grant, which continues through next spring, funding the one full-time staff attorney who replaced Leese and Cooley. The program also received a $17,950 grant from the Nevada Bar Foundtion, which will go toward representation costs, such as travel to and from the nearest asylum court, in Anaheim, California.
At the same time, the children’s immigration program is moving under the auspices of the existing immigration clinic at the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic, and will be converted to the clinical model currently used there. That means law students will handle cases with the guidance of law professors and staff attorneys. The combination of changes will allow the program to be expanded, as well as making it more sustainable for the long run. It will now be called the Edward M. Bernstein & Associates Immigration Clinic Children’s Rights Program.
Bernstein says he was moved to make the donation in part because his wife, now a U.S. citizen, is a Peruvian immigrant, and in part because of the plight of the children who come here from Mexico and Central America to escape violence and poverty.
“I would call upon others — particularly other attorneys — in Nevada to give their time and money for these children,” he said. “Can you imagine being a child, not speaking the language, and going through the bureaucratic red tape (of the U.S. immigration system) only to be sent back to the land where you could be raped or murdered?”
As of October, the UNLV program had a 100 percent success rate on its closed cases, attaining either asylum or special immigrant status for 44 children out of the 100 represented so far. (Other cases are still pending.)
Bernstein commended the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic for being one of few places in the country to offer free services for undocumented immigrant children, noting that private support for such programs could become even more important under the administration of president-elect Donald Trump if federal funding, such as the Justice AmeriCorps grant, is cut.
UNLV law professor Michael Kagan, who directs the immigration clinic at the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic, says, “States and regions considering funding legal aid for children and adults facing deportation is the future and a priority for everyone who’s concerned about what the incoming administration might do. … We’re fortunate with the Bernstein gift to be able to continue this work, but it would be a real shame if, on a national level, we had to return to a country that thinks it’s fine for a 5-year-old to defend himself in the American legal system.”