As Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria, the Squire Patton Boggs Foundation is launching a new fellowship program to help residents get the legal assistance they need.
The foundation, which sponsors a number of law students each summer who choose to do public interest fellowships, said Tuesday that it is placing one student with legal aid services organization Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and two students with Centro Para Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization that works to combat poverty by giving people tools to launch or expand businesses. Both organizations are based in San Juan.
"There is huge, huge damage there that is not being tended to," Squire Patton Boggs Foundation President John Oberdorfer said. "The problems are, from every indication, entrenched and need a great deal of attention. We thought this was a good place and a good way for us to dedicate our talent and our energies."
The idea for the fellowship began in 2018, when another student from the University of Miami Law School used the foundation's fellowship program to fund a summer working on legal aid in Puerto Rico. With the help of the foundation's Dean's Circle, a group of deans of 16 law schools around the country that place students in the Squire foundation's summer fellowships, the foundation put together an inaugural program for 2019 on the island.
At first, the plan was to place one student with a legal aid organization in Puerto Rico, according to Oberdorfer. But instead they're sending three.
"It's beyond our most optimistic expectations," he said. "We'll use it as a model of what we might do elsewhere as well."
Michael Scharf, dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said that from the beginning, there was enthusiasm among the law school deans for setting up a program in Puerto Rico.
"We were looking for an area where we could collectively be impactful," Scharf said. "There's a lot of concern throughout the U.S. in academia for the situation in Puerto Rico, as there was a few years ago in New Orleans. Major disasters bring major legal challenges, and anything we can do, we want to play a role and help out."
Case Western law student Andreana Paz is one of two students who will work with Centro Para Puerto Rico this summer. She'll be joined by Edmarie Rosario-Marín, a student at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University and a native of Puerto Rico.
Mónica Rodríguez-Cobian, also a Puerto Rico native and a student at Southern Methodist University Law School, will work with Ayuda Legal in San Juan. She said that after the hurricane, she and her family helped send supplies to the island, but now she's looking forward to being able to assist in the recovery in another way.
"I have an uncle now that's volunteering with [Federal Emergency Management Agency], and he tells me how much help is needed from people that understand the culture and can guide people," she said. "There's a lack of that in FEMA, and there are issues with title and property. That's specifically what I will be helping out with in this program."
Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still battling the federal agency over hurricane aid denied because they don't hold the titles to their properties, even if they've lived in them for decades. In Puerto Rico, where property law stems from Spanish civil law, as opposed to the English common law used on the mainland U.S., changing the name on a property's title can be a protracted and expensive process that involves attorneys and sometimes land surveyors and engineers.
A survey of more than 2,000 people in all but one municipality on the island by the titleship clinic at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law found that 49 percent of residents have problems with their titles or lack titles altogether. Without these documents, residents have a difficult time proving ownership of their properties to federal agencies distributing aid to repair homes.
Ayuda Legal has been at the forefront of a grassroots coalition that helped draft a sworn declaration affidavit that FEMA is now accepting in lieu of a title, as long as residents can provide other documentation showing they have been living on the property and paying bills.
The need for legal help in this arena is so great that even organizations like Centro Para Puerto Rico, which focuses more on entrepreneurial programs, have had to branch out to address it.
Andrea Castro, the volunteer liaison for Centro Para Puerto Rico, said that people who had previously graduated from their entrepreneurship program began coming back to them for help. Many had lost not just their businesses, but also their homes.
"The people coming were having more legal issues," she said. "So we said we have to do something about this, collaborate more with entities willing to address these needs that were more legal, of establishing recovery of the businesses."
She said the president of Centro Para Puerto Rico, who is an attorney and has connections in the legal world, was able to contact the Squire foundation and begin working on setting the fellowship in motion. Castro is still working on the plan for the fellows, but she's hoping they will help residents secure aid and navigate any government services for which they might be qualified.
"We're really trying to make an effort so they can provide legal assistance and also visit communities and give assistance directly to communities," Castro said.
--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.
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