Second-year law student Nikiya Natale (pictured) says she wouldn’t have been able to work with a nonprofit in South Texas this summer if Austin trial lawyer Bill Whitehurst and his wife, Stephanie, had not provided the money.
“Without funding, there would be no way I could afford to come down here for the summer and pay rent and food,” says Natale, who is working in Harlingen with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project.
She is one of six University of Texas School of Law students supported this summer by $4,250 fellowships funded by a gift from the Whitehursts for students doing 10 weeks of public interest work.
“I don’t think I will come out with any money saved,” Natale says. “But it’s enough to cover my expenses, for sure.”
The law school’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law administers the six fellowships.
Bill Whitehurst (pictured) is a senior shareholder in Austin’s Whitehurst, Harkness, Brees & Cheng. He says his interest in finding money to support legal services for the poor goes back to his 1986-87 term as president of the State Bar of Texas. He worked with other state bar presidents to co-found Bar Leaders for the Preservation of Legal Services to the Poor and to lobby Congress to support the Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corp., which funds civil legal aid for the poor.
“But I learned it was not something you do and go away but a lifetime commitment,” Whitehurst says. “There’s a massive need for the provision of legal services to the poor, especially when the economy is so bad.”
Natale started work on June 4. By the end of the second week on the job, she already had been to the Port Isabel Detention Center several times to meet with clients — immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to prepare their cases.
“It’s really interesting, because it is ground zero for immigration down here, with tons and tons of work,” says Natale. “At the end of the summer, I will do an actual asylum hearing.”
Most of the detainees are from Mexico or Central American, but some come from other countries, such as Africa and Iran, she says.
“You always hear these stories about people being tortured or imprisoned in their home country because of their political beliefs,” she says. “It’s kind of hard to connect with because it’s so distant, so far away. When you start meeting people and talking with them, the stories become more real.”
— Jeanne Graham