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Shortage of Hawaii Pro Bono Attorneys Hobbles Legal Aid To Asylum-Seekers

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As many as 150 Central American migrants seeking asylum have found their way to Hawaii from the U.S. Mexico border.

But to remain in the U.S., they must appear in immigration court in Honolulu and make their case for asylum, and that’s not been easy.


U.S. authorities have been sending asylum-seekers around the country to await their day in immigration court. About 40 migrant families, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and many fleeing violence, have been sent to the islands in recent months.

"We do have pockets of migrants who have been arriving here in Hawai?i from Central America. They’re in the agricultural communities. They end up doing field work – your macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, you name it," said ProfessorJohn Egan, who directs the Refugee and ImmigrationLawClinic at the University of Hawaii Law School.

But as more immigrants seek protection in the U.S., asylum, winning cases has gotten harder.

"We have been seeing people arriving here in Hawai?i quite often with no English skills whatsoever. They’re coming from pretty poor environments and they’re given a plane ticket and a notice to show up in court," Egan said.

Pro bono attorneys can help, but they aren’t readily available in Hawaii. Egan and his students at the Law Clinic have picked up a dozen pro bono cases so far. 

"Honestly, I have to say that some of these cases, we’re just taking them because no one else can. What we have started now is a new project to recruit volunteer lawyers who are not immigration attorneys and bring in additional legal help," he said.

On a recent Saturday, the clinic ran a four-hour workshop to train attorneys in immigration law. About a dozen lawyers showed up.

Often what determines if asylum-seeker win their cases is whether they have lawyers.

A 2018 report by Syracuse University found 90 percent of asylum-seekers without a lawyer were denied in 2017. 

But even with an attorney, there’s no guarantee that asylum will be granted. Of those immigrants with attorneys tracked in the same study, half were turned down.

Egan says many of the immigrants will be making their court appearances in the coming months. He hopes they’ll do so with lawyers by their sides.

Hawai?i attorneys interested in getting involved may contact Professor John Egan at (808)956-4092 or by email at jregan@hawaii.edu 

Editor's note: On Thursday night, HPR’s Catherine Cruz moderates a panel taking on the question: Does Hawai'i Welcome Immigrants? The event is sponsored by Zócalo and the Daniel K. Inouye Institute. For more information, go to the HPR events page.


Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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