Alejandra Apecechea, a King & Spalding associate who helps lead the UndocuNeighbor Initiative, addresses a training session in Washington D.C. on July 17.
In January 2018, a California federal judge blocked an attempt by the Trump administration to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in a ruling that has since been appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a result, roughly 800,000 DACA recipients could reapply for the protection from deportation that President Obama created in 2012 to immigrants who crossed the border without authorization as children.
But reapplying is no easy feat, especially for immigrants like Maria of Laredo, Texas, a working woman with three children, who was brought to America as a 15-year-old girl in 1997. She wasn't sure she could afford the $495 fee to reapply for DACA, especially considering she'd just paid to reapply the year before.
Her papers were supposed to be good for two years, but as a whirlwind of lawsuits progressed through the courts, nobody knew how long the program would survive.
"I was not planning to renew until later," Maria, who asked to use a pseudonym for this story, told Law360. "But people were saying I should reapply again to buy myself more time."
That's when Maria met Alejandra Apecechea, an associate at King & Spalding LLP who helps lead the firm's UndocuNeighbor DACA initiative. The program supports DACA recipients as they renew their status, by paying filing fees for the indigent and providing pro bono legal assistance with forms that are not always easy to fill out.
Apecechea worked with Maria, correcting an initial mistake that could have voided the whole application; the UndocuNeighbor program also took care of the costs.
Maria said that without Apecechea's help, she might have found another lawyer and gotten the money to apply, but she wouldn't have felt as secure in her application or as dignified in her legal experience.
"I don't think you can put it into words," she said. "They treated me like I was paying them even though it was completely free. You don't always get that treatment from lawyers; I paid one for my divorce and he was never there."
Maria is just one of 291 Dreamers across 31 states who've been helped through the King & Spalding program. In July, the firm held a training for more in-house and outside lawyers who want to help, with Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, appearing as a keynote speaker.
Apecechea told Law360 that UndocuNeighbor was born out of an "enormous outpouring of requests for assistance with DACA applications" in the wake of the Trump administration's September 2017 decision to rescind the program.
Many of those requests were directed at Voto Latino, a digital civic media organization co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson that aims to "provide culturally relevant programs that engage, educate and empower Latinos to be agents of change."
"They have tremendous roots across the country, in communities where many legal services aren't offered," Apecechea said. "They have a trusted name ... and they reached out to us. We started to collaborate."
Trust is especially key among an immigrant community that is often preyed upon by unethical lawyers and people pretending to be lawyers. For example, Maria said her cousin was forced to pay one attorney $200 to get access to her own application.
"We've come across quite a few DACA recipients who have been completely swindled out of their money or charged insane fees for very little legal work," Apecechea said. "We were met with some skepticism from some people, initially. But once we helped enough people, I think they could see that we are there to support them."
A key part of the program is that King & Spalding attorneys can help people reapply remotely, allowing them to access parts of the country far removed from the nearest law office. As Apecechea noted, in many parts of rural America you can go hundreds of miles without finding a pro bono lawyer who does immigration work.
Instead of requiring recipients to travel long distances, UndocuNeighbor lawyers use email and telephone to communicate with them. Maria said Apecechea was always quick to respond to her questions.
"We're able to help people in places where we otherwise wouldn't be able to if we had to be physically present," Apecechea said.
Brianna Carmen, the national organizer for Voto Latino, said a key part of getting the word out in those areas is its social media platform.
"There are several Facebook groups led for and by Dreamers that share information about the UndocuNeighbor Initiative," Carmen said told Law360. "This program empowers Dreamers, regardless of where they may live and the financial or legal barriers that they may face in their community."
Apecechea agreed, noting that Voto Latino's support is crucial to the project's ability to serve people across the country.
"If we would've just shown up in places with a table and a sign that says 'legal services,'" she said, "I don't know if we would've had this kind of success."
At King & Spalding's July training, about 150 attorneys learned how to handle cases like Maria's, joining 100 already-trained UndocuNeighbor participants.
With DACA's future up in the air pending oral arguments in November, Apecechea said UndocuNeighbor will continue helping people reapply for the protections that enable them to work and raise families in the U.S.
"We feel very fortunate to be able to help individuals, especially the ones who don't have many affordable legal options in their area," she said.
--Editing by Brian Baresch.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Apecechea in some instances. The error has been corrected.
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