Attorney at Law Magazine Dallas sat down with Bill Holston, the executive director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI) to discuss his organization and its work in the community.
AALM: Is there an interesting story behind the founding of your organization?
BH: HRI was founded in 2000 by two women I deeply respect and admire – Serena Simmons Connelly and her good friend Betsy Healy. I was Betsy’s mentor on her first asylum case. I met Serena in 1997. I was a private attorney, doing pro bono work for Proyecto Adelante, a legal services organization that is no longer around. I met Serena because she was concerned for the mental health of Proyecto’s clients, many of whom were torture survivors. After providing the leadership and initial funding to begin the Center for Survivors of Torture, she and Betsy—a lawyer—opened HRI’s doors. Soon after, I began taking HRI cases pro bono.
AALM: What is the organization’s main focus in the coming year?
BH: We’re focused on continuing to deliver high-quality legal representation and social services support to the folks that we serve. This work has always been hard, but there’s never been a more challenging time to do it. The past four years brought crushing changes to our already difficult immigration system, requiring us to fight harder than ever to get the relief our clients are entitled to under our law. On top of that, our clients have been hit hard by the public health and economic effects of COVID. We’re working hard to support folks through this time.
AALM: How would you encourage a young lawyer to become involved in their legal community?
BH: I didn’t start out to become a human rights activist. Along the way, I met a Mennonite missionary, who was working with Central Americans here. He said, “I’m sure you’re aware of the Salvadoran Civil War.” I said not really, and he said, “Yes, there are tens of thousands of people fleeing war and we’re here helping them.” Then I said something that I gave no thought to, but it changed my life: “If you ever need a hand, give me a call.”
My first asylum case was a Guatemalan woman, whose husband was a labor leader, who was assassinated by a death squad as they took their kids to school. I helped her get asylum and after that I was hooked. I’ve been taking these cases now for about 30 years. Pro bono work with HRI is a great way to get involved and change your life. We offer that same opportunity to young lawyers today.
AALM: How frequently does the organization offer CLE events? How much do they cost?
BH: We offer free CLEs introducing HRI and our work regularly. We go law firms and we also offer open CLEs at our offices (now virtually because of the pandemic).
AALM: Does the organization offer any mentorship opportunities?
BH: Our team at HRI works closely with our pro bono partners to mentor them through their cases. I graduated from SMU law school 40 years ago in May, and immediately started doing court-appointed criminal cases. Over the years, I tried jury and non-jury cases; I had oral arguments in state and courts of appeals. I had lots of general business clients, and closed business deals worth millions of dollars. Our pro bono attorneys are just like I was—people with lots of legal experience who have never touched immigration cases. Our job as HRI staff is to make sure everyone can succeed.
AALM: As more students graduate, how is the organization helping to integrate them into the legal community?
BH: We host law students as spring, summer, and fall interns. Our interns go on to be attorneys who already have hands-on experience working on client cases, leading intakes, gathering facts, and attending court hearings. I appreciate that many first-year associates reach out to us immediately after they pass the bar – they see that they have the training and skills to do something that really makes a difference, and want to dive in. We’re thrilled to work with them as they’re starting their careers.
AALM: What is the traditional demographic of your pro bono attorneys? Young? Solo practitioners?
BH: Our pro bono attorneys run the gamut: they are partners, associates, and summer associates; they are independent practitioners, big firm attorneys, retired attorneys, and in-house counsel at corporations. Some have practiced for a lifetime; others are brand-new to their legal practice. A number of folks choose to take pro bono cases with us because of their or their family’s own immigration story. All the people who work with us do it because they care about the people we serve.
AALM: Do you partner with any other organizations in the local community?
BH: We partner with many organizations, faith groups, and community groups across the metroplex. Our team has worked hard to build relationships with generous folks in the community who want to support our clients’ basic needs. Those partnerships have helped us scale up our capacity to provide social services to our clients over the past 10 years, and those folks have really come through for our clients during this difficult time.
AALM: What is the main mission of your organization?
BH: HRI provides legal and critical social services for immigrant survivors of human rights abuses from all over the world. One of my clients, for example, literally escaped from a firing squad. A man saw him bearing the marks and bandages of his injuries and asked what had happened; my client had no plan, so he told him. The man turned out to be a ship captain and smuggled him aboard a cargo ship. It was a long journey and dark—my client couldn’t even tell day from night. But they eventually made it to the U.S. and to our offices. The ship captain told him, I’m going to be an old man some day and will regret not helping you. Providing pro bono legal services permits you to have a career without that regret.
AALM: As you look back at your organization’s history, what role do you think it has played in the community? Do you think that will change in the future?
BH: The most important thing we’ve done over the past 20 years is give folks a chance to rebuild their lives after surviving things that really seem unsurvivable. And while doing that, our pro bono attorneys get to opportunity to meet extraordinary people and understand the life-or-death power their law degree can wield. I hope that, because of the deep engagement of pro bono attorneys in town, we’re building a legal community that understands and will fight for a more just system.