There’s a new legal clinic in Honolulu with one attorney who will take immigration cases for free.

A single pro bono lawyer may not seem significant, but it is. When people go to immigration court in Honolulu without an attorney, they’re handed a piece of paper with the heading, “List of Pro Bono Legal Service Providers.”

It’s key information for anyone facing potential deportation, who unlike criminal defendants have no access to public defenders or right to free legal counsel. The federal government provides the list to people without representation facing removal proceedings.

But despite its helpful-sounding title, the paper is blank.

“As of the revision date above, there are no registered list of Pro Bono Legal Service Providers for Honolulu, Hawaii or Guam,” the document says.

The Legal Clinic. Bettina Mok Executive Director.
Bettina Mok is the executive director of the Legal Clinic, a new nonprofit law firm in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The lack of free designated legal services for immigrants is a widespread problem that affects 22 states including Hawaii and every U.S. territory. The Hawaii Immigrant Justice Center, part of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, can help some immigrants for free, but federal funding restrictions limit who they can assist. The dearth of services is particularly problematic in places like Hawaii where so many residents are immigrants.

T.J. FitzGerald, a local Unitarian minister and advocate for people who migrate, describes the list as “a very good way to encapsulate hopelessness.”

“Where there’s supposed to be help, there’s a blank page,” he said.

The new nonprofit law firm in Honolulu wants to try to fill the gap and help the estimated 40,000 people in Hawaii who are undocumented.

The Legal Clinic opened its doors to clients on Sept. 1. The nonprofit’s attorney, Esther Yoo, says she’s open to taking a variety of cases — such as helping people apply for U.S. citizenship or permanent residency and aiding unauthorized immigrants. Already, Yoo has a client from the Federated States of Micronesia who has lived and worked legally in Hawaii for 30 years and is applying for a green card.

The legal advice is free of charge for anyone earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level. The threshold varies depending on the number of children you have but this year was $59,240 for a family of four. The nonprofit will also serve people earning as much as 300% of the federal poverty level with a flat fee of $100. That’s up to $88,860 annually for a family of four.

Esther Arinaga, a 92-year-old former immigration attorney who helped found the organization, believes it will meet a critical need.

“There are so many people marginalized by society,” she says. “These are people oftentimes who aren’t seen. We can go through life and not see them. But they do need help.”

Filling A Need In Trump’s America

The idea for The Legal Clinic was born at a lunch between Arinaga and her friend and fellow attorney Pat McManaman nearly three years ago.

It was following President Donald Trump’s election. The president’s rhetoric about immigrants worried Arinaga, who used to work as a pro bono attorney. Arinaga says she and McMannaman talked about the need to help undocumented people in Hawaii.

They started meeting regularly with a group of advocates for immigrants. It took years for the organization to receive 501(c)(3) status and to become a member of the Justice for Our Neighbors network, a United Methodist organization that provides legal services for immigrants.

Even though the organization is fairly new, it’s already hitting the ground running. It partnered with the City and County of Honolulu and received a grant through “Cities for Citizenship” to help 250 people obtain U.S. citizenship.

Its board includes a DACA recipient, the named plaintiff in the highly publicized lawsuit against Trump’s travel ban, well-known longtime local civil rights advocates and members of newer immigrant communities from Polynesia and Micronesia.

On a recent Thursday, Yoo and executive director Bettina Mok were sitting in their two-room office on the second floor of the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu. The nonprofit is renting the space for $1 a year and also receives funding from the church. A Tongan tapa cloth hangs from one wall, and on the coffee table is a batch of brochures and flyers advertising an upcoming fundraiser.

Mok and Yoo envision the nonprofit will provide a mix of direct services to immigrants, education and advocacy at the state and local level.

A previous version of this story incorrectly said The Legal Clinic is holding a training session for pro bono attorneys. The training is being hosted by the University of Hawaii Law School.

The Legal Clinic Esther Yoo Esq.
Esther Yoo is the new attorney at the Legal Clinic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yoo emphasizes that the office hopes to be a welcoming place for people who lack documentation and that undocumented people don’t have to be afraid to seek help. To that end, the office is decorated with artwork that says “No human is illegal” and “Dreamers welcome.”

“Our immigration system is broken,” Yoo said. From her perspective, immigrant rights are “the next frontier in term of human rights and civil rights in the U.S.”

Thinking Big

The clinic joins a slowly expanding universe of services for immigrants. John Egan is a law professor at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law who is on the advisory board for The Legal Clinic.

He also runs an immigration clinic at the law school, which seeks to train law students as well as provide pro bono services to immigrants. But Egan says they can only handle a couple of cases at a time and aren’t a designated legal service provider due to limited resources.

John Egan Courtesy of the University of Hawaii

“We’re pretty much at our capacity,” Egan says.

“As long as I’ve been a practicing immigration attorney here in Hawaii, it’s been plain and obvious to me that our legal services infrastructure for immigrants is underdeveloped,” he added. “There just aren’t enough people able and willing to do low cost pro bono legal services for immigrants.”

Egan says ideally he would like to see Honolulu follow in the footsteps of other cities — like Baltimore, Boston and New Orleans — that have set aside public money to fund immigration lawyers for people in need.

Studies show immigrants in removal proceedings are far more likely to get deported if they lack an attorney than if they do.

That’s part of what helped drive Arinaga to pioneer The Legal Clinic.

At 92, Arinaga can’t do as much as she used to. But last week, she attended a lecture at the University of Hawaii by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam as a child and is now a Pulitzer Prize winner. He spoke about the need to be more accepting of refugees and immigrants and the importance of telling their stories.

She left rejuvenated. “We can’t give up,” she thought.

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