Working Together Across the Spectrum of Disaster Legal Needs

By Al Roberts, public programs specialist at Equal Justice Works

Photo of Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows with Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern (far left)

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, Equal Justice Works established the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC). Launched in May 2018, this award-winning Fellowship program mobilized 23 attorneys to provide free civil legal services to low-income and marginalized communities affected by these disasters in Texas and Florida. As new challenges came to light, such as Tropical Storm Imelda and the COVID-19 pandemic, Fellows in the DRLC were able to adapt to the needs within their communities and realize profound outcomes for their clients.

The unique nature of the DRLC’s regional cohort Fellowship model allowed the program to achieve its greatest potential, with Fellows leveraging their combined knowledge and expertise to better serve the disparate needs of disaster survivors. The diverse array of specializations among Fellows enhanced their efficacy in addressing the critical legal needs of a similarly diverse client population. Some Fellows’ projects had them addressing labor rights, while others were focused on appealing FEMA benefit denials or combatting improper evictions. Several Fellows’ scope of work targeted specific demographics like individuals with disabilities or undocumented immigrant families. This robust network allowed for client referrals between the Fellows in the program and with community partners at large, connecting disaster-impacted clients to holistic services.

At the end of the program in October 2020, the work of the Fellows rendered some truly impressive feats. Of the cases closed during the program, 84% resulted in a positive outcome for the client, contributing to a staggering $3.25 million in combined economic benefits achieved for clients. These benefits included housing stability, FEMA assistance, resolving title disputes, preserving wages, and more. The magnitude of economic benefits realized illustrates the return on investment enabled by the cohort Fellowship model.

Additionally, community outreach and education efforts by the Fellows led to 24,264 individuals receiving legal information and 6,007 individuals receiving legal assistance on a breadth of issues—housing, family, consumer finance, immigration, health, estate planning, and many more facets of life that can be disrupted following a disaster.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps is exemplary of what a cohort Fellowship model can accomplish. Learn more about the work of the DRLC Fellows and Equal Justice Works continued commitment to disaster recovery and preparedness in its latest initiative, the Disaster Resilience Program.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps program was funded with support from the American Red Cross, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Learn more about the work of our DRLC Fellows here

By April Hewko, program manager at Equal Justice Works, with contributions from Adriel Orozco, executive director at New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Immigration law is incredibly complex and ever-changing, making it nearly impossible to navigate without the guidance of a lawyer. Through our Fellowship opportunities, Equal Justice Works has made a clear commitment to increasing access to justice for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Since 1993, we’ve created 386 Fellowship opportunities focused on supporting immigrant populations, most recently mobilizing a network of 7 paralegals and 6 lawyers (Fellows) who were hosted by the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC).

From 2016 to 2020, the New Mexico Immigration Corps deployed lawyers and paralegals to provide critically needed legal aid to immigrant children and families throughout New Mexico; the team of 13 paralegal and attorney Fellows served more than 7,400 immigrant individuals through consultations, provision of legal information, and/or direct representation. A primary goal of the program was to create a pipeline of new and prospective lawyers from the immigrant community and communities of color into the public interest sector in New Mexico.

Photo of the New Mexico Immigration Corps Fellows. Top row (L-R): Deshawnda Chaparro, Eduardo Garcia, Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre. Bottom row (L-R): Adriel Orozco, Diana Torres, Rebekah Wolf.

Throughout the four-year program, Fellows partnered with public interest programs at the University of New Mexico School of Law to create opportunities for law students interested in working with immigrant populations; collaborated to increase the representation of historically marginalized individuals in the legal profession; coordinated with more than 40 pro bono attorneys interested in supporting low-income immigrants; and worked with community organizations to provide holistic services and support. More broadly, the program addressed racial equity in the nonprofit and legal sector in New Mexico by ensuring Fellows came from the communities they served, while including impacted communities in decision making, and collaborating with like-minded organizations that prioritized equity.

Restrictive immigration policies at the federal level over the past four years and during the more recent COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Fellows’ work environment and how they were able to serve the immigrant community. However, due to the flexibility of the Fellowship, program participants were able to respond to the increased arrests of immigrants, the continuing needs of DACA recipients, and the detention of asylum seekers throughout the last four years. Fellows were also able to focus their work on the needs that were exacerbated because of the pandemic (e.g., language access, criminal and immigration detention, and screening for additional needs such as housing assistance) by transitioning to electronic formats and collaborating with other organizations to advocate for more protections and resources for the immigrant community. This was a priority for the Fellows as the pandemic disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers.

Over the course of the program, Fellows conducted more than 250 legal education community outreach events and activities for over 6,500 participants, such as citizenship and DACA pro se workshops and Know Your Rights presentations and trainings. These events, as well as regular individual consultations with clients, were essential over the last four years, as laws and policies changes caused confusion, fear, and insecurity for clients and the community in general.

Fellows in the New Mexico Immigration Corps benefitted from collaborating with partner organizations and other Equal Justice Works alumni and Fellows in their cohort. The cohort model provides the opportunity for Fellows to have hands-on experience in specific issue areas and become a part of a core group of dedicated practitioners who share a common passion, learn together, share resources, innovate, problem-solve, and build a stronger community of practice.

“I learned a lot and greatly benefitted from being able to meet and confer with other Fellows nationwide. I got a lot of support from the host organization and was given access to all the tools I needed,” said Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre, 2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow.

I learned a lot and greatly benefitted from being able to meet and confer with other Fellows nationwide. I got a lot of support from the host organization and was given access to all the tools I needed.

Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Following the four-year program, NMILC has been able to secure grants to sustain the positions of six of the seven Fellows. Adriel Orozco, executive director of NMILC and 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow, reflected, “The New Mexico Immigration Corps allowed NMILC to strengthen its supervision and mentorship programs, particularly with a racial equity lens. Additionally, the project allowed NMILC to be responsive to the many challenges that arose for the immigrant community because of anti-immigrant policies at the federal level as well as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Equal Justice Works is looking for opportunities to expand its reach of immigration-related cohorts in the future. One such way is by increasing efforts to expand its Disaster Resilience Program, which helps communities, including immigrant communities, before, during, and after a disaster, including COVID-19.

We are proud of what our Fellows in the New Mexico Immigration Corps have achieved over the last four years, providing direct legal services and outreach and strengthening the pipeline of legal talent in New Mexico to serve immigrant families.

The New Mexico Immigration Corps program was funded with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other donors.

Photo of Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows
Photo of Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows at their training in 2018, with Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern (front left)

The 2017 hurricane season was one of the busiest and most destructive hurricane seasons on record, with billions of dollars in damages. Following the aftermath of these hurricanes, Equal Justice Works established the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a two-year program aimed at helping residents in disaster-affected communities in Texas and Florida, navigate the complex web of legal issues.

Launched in the summer of 2018, the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has been on the front lines helping to rebuild communities and lives. In its first year, Fellows across Texas and Florida have made outstanding achievements in responding to current recovery needs, as well as strengthening the long-term capacity of legal aid organizations to administer services for future disasters.

From applying for FEMA benefits, to protecting against unscrupulous contractors and unlawful evictions, and ensuring those with physical disabilities can safely access their homes—Fellows have been a critical part of the recovery process in the communities where they serve.

In Texas, Fellows provided 9,080 individuals with legal information, and 2,815 individuals with counsel or direct representation, exceeding the program’s year-one performance measure target by almost 65 percent! Fellows in Texas have also managed to secure about $1.1 million in economic benefits for their clients in the first year.

Collaboration and partnership among Fellows and the wider community of disaster recovery organizations has been an essential part of the program. Fellow Christina Brown at Lone Star Legal Aid partnered with the American Red Cross and the Liberty County Disaster Recovery Group to schedule outreach events and provide information and resources to the citizens of Liberty County. Fellow Stephanie Duke, at Disability Rights Texas and Fellows Christina Brown, Carla (CJ) Krystyniak, Lauren Masullo, Chase Porter, and Meghan Smolensky at Lone Star Legal Aid worked with the American Association of Retired Persons to perform outreach, give presentations, and conduct a clinic on clearing titles for individuals affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Rebuilding is an arduous process, and the needs of individuals who have experienced a disaster are profound and require multi-disciplinary responses. The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows are working diligently to resolve the short and long-term legal needs of individuals who would otherwise be unable to secure disaster-related legal services.

Click here to learn more about the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellows.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

* May 2018 to March 2019 reporting period