Department of Justice accredited representatives like Gloria Avila are who we had in mind when we launched our efforts to increase the number of legal services providers who are qualified to represent some of the most vulnerable immigrants–those facing deportation.
Avila came to the United States as a Cuban refugee in 1967. Her father was in the Cuban Armed Forces prior to Fidel Castro taking power and her family were not sympathizers of the new government.
“My desire to pay restitution for all the benefits I received after the United States welcomed [my family] led me to immigration law,” she said.
Avila moved from partial to full DOJ accreditation this past April, nearly 20 years after she first began working with immigrants as a volunteer teaching citizenship classes.
“I was working for a large utility company [at the time] and my only goal was to serve the immigrant community in my spare time. But I wanted to do more,” she said. A degree and a few life experiences later, she joined the Hispanic Services Council in Tampa, Florida, the same year they created the Immigration Services Department.
Full accreditation became a realistic endeavor for Avila when she was selected for CLINIC’s Partial to Full Accredited Representative Initiative. Described as “intense and extensive,” this program uses mentoring, webinars, written assignments, in-person court-skill training in Chicago, and more to prepare participants for everything they could encounter as a court-bound legal representative.
“This training was demanding, [but without a doubt] one of the best courses CLINIC has provided, if not the best,” said Avila. She especially appreciated getting to work with a retired immigration judge and the comprehensive practice case they followed, which covered everything from case assessment and various types of examinations to objections and closing arguments.
“I arrived in Chicago completely doubting myself; [but] by the end of the training, I left convinced that I could perform in the courtroom.”
Avila doubled down on her education by taking ICE Detention: What You Need to Know to Safeguard Due Process for Detained Clients at CLINIC’s 2018 annual Convening.
“I wanted the hands on experience simulating a real bond hearing,” she said, which led her to be the first volunteer to “represent” the “client” during a mock, small-group activity.
Less than a month later, not even two months after she became authorized to represent clients before the immigration courts, Avila took on her first case. A man had been arrested for driving without a valid driver's license, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had requested the local law enforcement department to hold him until they could pick him up.
“His family was worried sick about him. I will admit that I was petrified as I considered representing him, but I knew that the only way to go from the theory into the practice was to just do it,” she said.
Pushing the nervousness aside, Avila sprang into action, gathering facts, determining his eligibility for bond and keeping the family abreast of the situation. He was a long-time resident with two U.S. citizen children, one of whom suffers from a heart condition and wears a pacemaker.
“Based on the facts, I determined that he seemed eligible for cancellation of removal,” she said. “ICE was waiting to detain a devoted family man who is a person of integrity and a pillar to his community.”
The initial bond was set at $30,000 despite the man only having a prior “driving without a valid driver's license” offense and the current arrest being for the same offense.
“I argued–just as I did during the CLINIC Convening–that this man was not a threat to the community and not a flight risk. Bond was re-set at $3,000, and the man is now back with his family, as he should and wants to be,” she said.
“I do not think I could have achieved this family reunification victory without CLINIC. The court-skills training in Chicago not only allowed me to practice and master the skills, but it also gave me the confidence to do this work.”
Avila is an inspiration to her peers and an asset to the legal community. We look forward to watching her grow as an advocate, helping many more families stay together and improve their lives.