TRLA in 2009: A Year in Review

As Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) marks the end of another year of helping low-income Texans with their legal needs, the end of 2009 comes with numerous milestones. Not only did we help another 20,000+ people fight for their rights, but we are now looking at having served low-income Texas residents for forty years.

This year added another series of legal victories to that history that will continue to affect how Texans fight for and secure their rights in civil legal cases. Though all of work is meaningful and changes the life of at least one low-income Texan with every case, we wanted to highlight a few of the biggest battles faced this year.

Drop in Interest Rates Threaten Legal Aid
Though there were many issues that captured the attention of the Texas legislative session, at the forefront of battles for low-income Texans was the issue of funding for legal aid organizations. While drops in interest rates were meant to stimulate the economy, a nasty side effect became the loss of millions of dollars in IOLTA money meant to help groups like TRLA. For several months the Texas Access to Justice Foundation worked with legislative supporters and legal aid organizations to raise awareness of the importance this money has in serving low-income communities. As a result of their efforts, for the first time in legislative history, the Texas legislature appropriated special funds to go towards legal aid organizations in Texas.

The Texas Access to Justice Foundation was key to the legislative fight to save legal aid.

Sabrina Steele Fights For A Job
Sabrina Steele just wanted to find a job that would let her do the work that she loved – being outside working on a farm. But when she went to apply for a position at Pope’s Plant Farm in Tennessee, even though she was well-qualified, Steele felt unwelcome. The owners discouraged her from taking a job, arguing that she would be the only U.S.-born English speaker, the only female, and would have to work 80 hours per week. Steele later found out that the company offered foreign workers these same positions on more reasonable terms. Believing the company had discriminated against her for being a U.S.-born worker, Steele turned to Melody Fowler-Green of TRLA’s Southern Migrant Legal Services in Tennessee. It did not take long for people to notice the story and the case was settled quickly.

Hurricane Dolly flooded many low-income neighborhoods in the Rio Grande Valley.

FEMA Ordered to Give Hurricane Victims Another Review
In late 2008 more than one dozen victims of Hurricane Dolly sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for denying their claims for disaster assistance. The legal fight continued into 2009 as the Rio Grande Valley residents continued to live in homes suffering from water damage, mold, and roof damage. But in August, almost one year after the storm washed ashore, a south Texas court ruled in favor of the victims and ordered FEMA to publish the standards it uses to determine who gets federal disaster aid. In addition, the court also ordered FEMA to review the claims of TRLA’s clients using the new standards. The ruling will have a heavy impact on future disaster victims across the country.

Monica Castro Goes After Border Patrol
All Monica Castro wanted was to find her daughter. She knew that her undocumented ex-boyfriend had the child and contacted Border Patrol agents for help. Because her daughter was a U.S. citizen, Castro felt she had no reason to be worried. But when her ex-boyfriend was taken into custody to be deported, Castro’s daughter was taken with him. Border Patrol made a decision – they sent the girl across the border with her father. It took Castro three years to get her daughter back and she quickly sought the help of TRLA where attorney Susan Watson has been representing Castro in her lawsuit against Border Patrol, arguing that the officials did not have the authority to make a custody decision in this case. Though the lawsuit was dismissed in 2007,Watson has not given up the fight and Castro is continuing to use the legal system to hold Border Patrol agents accountable.

Leaders of the Del Rio community came together to discuss ways to help victims of domestic violence.

Rural Domestic Violence Shelter Closes
In a blow to the resources victims of domestic violence have in rural counties, in mid-April the Amistad Family Violence and Rape Crisis Center closed its doors.As the only family violence shelter in the Del Rio area, its closing was a devastating blow to the help given to people facing life and death situations in south Texas. It also meant that the closest emergency shelter for people in need was more than 100 miles away. Facing this crisis, TRLA brought together community leaders from Val Verde and Kinney counties to develop a plan to bring resources back to Del Rio. Though details are still being worked out, all community leaders have agreed to continue to meet with each other and provide support to victims of domestic violence in the area until a new shelter can be established.

School District Threatens Border Students
The start of a new school year always brings a lot of excitement to parents and a bit of dread to students. But in the community of Del Rio, the start of the latest school year was surrounded by controversy as the new school superintendent adopted a new policy – he wanted everyone to prove their residency or risk being kicked out. In a small border town where students often have family on both sides of the border, many parents came to TRLA for help with their legal rights and proving that their children could attend public school. Though the media firestorm generated a lot of controversy and made it seem like hundreds of students from outside the district were trying to take advantage of a free education, the truth was vastly different. In fact, the truth was so different that none of TRLA’s clients got kicked out of school. The school superintendent changed his policy and TRLA’s Del Rio branch office set out to educate the border community on legal rights to a public education and establishing residency.

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