In the summer of 2014, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI), a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrant survivors of violence in the United States, ran into a problem. For 14 years, the organization’s model—recruiting and training lawyers primarily from major law firms to offer pro bono assistance to those most in need—had allowed them to handle a remarkable number of immigration court cases. Thousands of people’s lives have been impacted by the work they do. But that summer, the office was overrun with cases because the Mexico-U.S. border was overrun with people, many of them children.
“The only time in our history we turned cases down because of capacity issues was the unaccompanied minors,” says Bill Holston, HRI’s executive director since January 2012. “It is one of the two hardest things about this work: saying no to people, and losing cases for people where we have put in tremendous resources.”
The beauty of the vision behind HRI is that both of those things are relatively rare occurrences. Founded by social worker Serena Connelly and lawyer Betsy Healy in 2000, HRI grew out of their shared passion for human rights work. They obtained some funding from the Harold Simmons Foundation (Connelly is the late billionaire’s daughter) and began to recruit top legal talent. Early on, HRI handled only a dozen or so cases every year, but now, as the organization celebrates its 15th anniversary, that number has grown to hundreds. HRI has been successful precisely because it is able to recruit so many lawyers who find the pro bono work fulfilling. Too, it carefully vets cases to make sure that clients are truly those in desperate need.
Holston volunteered his legal services for 12 years before becoming executive director. He says the broader conversation about immigration policy often overlooks the reality of why HRI’s clients flee to the United States in the first place.
“They are not coming for a better life. They are coming to save their lives,” Holston says. “Our clients are seldom talked about in this debate at all. They are drowned in all of the rhetoric about immigration. But I think most Americans want to think of the United States as a country that is welcoming to people, a place of refuge for people fleeing violence.”
In the following pages, we take a look at five individuals whose lives have been changed by the Human Rights Initiative. These five people were forced to flee their homes—or lured here for nefarious reasons—and found themselves in Dallas, living in impossible situations. That’s where HRI stepped in.