Unsung Heroes: Volunteers and the Central American Refugee Crisis

Unsung Heroes: Volunteers and the Central American Refugee Crisis

Nadia Anguiano-Wehde, MJIL Staff Member

As reported by the United Nations, the world today faces the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. As of 2014, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide had reached startling proportions, exceeding 50 million for the first time since World War II. Though much of the media attention in the Western Hemisphere has focused on the European refugee crisis, the refugee crisis south of our border—with thousands of women and children fleeing epidemic levels of violence and persecution in Central America—has received substantially less media attention. That notwithstanding, a particular group of people has not only paid extremely close attention, they’ve decided to do something about it: volunteer.

Andrés Abella is just one of hundreds of volunteers who have joined forces to assist the thousands of Central American asylum seekers being held at detention centers in the United States. As part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, volunteers like Abella have donated thousands of hours of their time—valued at more than $6.75 million in just the past year—to helping asylum seeking mothers and children navigate the early stages of the complex process required to seek protection in the United States; a process the U.S. government has decided that they must undergo while they are detained. These volunteers, including attorneys, law students, social workers, and medical professionals, to name a few, work to ensure that these would-be refugees obtain the protection that they are afforded under international law, and that the process they go through comports with due process as provided by the U.S. Constitution. Motivated by heart-wrenching stories of women and children forced to flee their homes, these volunteers do not waver, and as a result of their efforts, more than 90% of the detained mothers and children that they work with are allowed to leave detention to move forward with their asylum claims.

On a broader scale, the work of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project underscores the critical role that volunteers, adequately trained and possessing the right sets of skills, can play in staving off crises and in responding to some of the world’s most pressing emergencies. As they currently work to ensure that thousands of asylum seeking mothers and children receive international protection, volunteers continue to be those unsung heroes that we too often leave unrecognized.


[1] World Refugee Day: Global Forced Displacement Tops 50 Million for First Time in Post-World War II Era, U.N. High Comm’r for Refugees (June 20, 2014), http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Elise Foley, How Volunteers Helped Families Trapped in Immigrant Detention Centers, Huff. Post (Apr. 11, 2016, 2:26 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/family-immigrant-detention-volunteers_us_57081462e4b0885fb50d202a.

[4] CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, American Immigration Lawyers Ass’n, http://www.aila.org/practice/pro-bono/find-your-opportunity/cara-family-detention-pro-bono-project (last visited Apr. 25, 2016).

[5] See Foley, supra note 3.

[6] See Incarcerated Children and Mothers Denied Due Process and Critical Information Before Release, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (July 27, 2015), https://cliniclegal.org/news/family-detention-cara/incarcerated-children-and-mothers-denied-due-process-and-critical.

[7] See Carin Weinrich, At Long Last, Volunteering at Dilley, AILA Leadership Blog (Mar. 31, 2016), http://www.ailaleadershipblog.org/2016/03/31/at-long-last-volunteering-at-dilley/.

[8] Foley, supra note 3.