Melissa Pena

Equal Justice America Awards two-year $130,000 Immigration Fellowship to Melissa Pena to work at Detention Facility on Southern Border

In News by david.landis

Melissa Pena, University of Michigan (J.D. 2019), EJA Immigration Fellow at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid

I am thankful to Equal Justice America and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid for creating this fellowship with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. We are at a moment where there is a great need for more effort towards ending family detention. I am honored to serve clients who have endured unbelievable violence and scarring trauma, and have nevertheless had the immense courage to fight for their lives and the lives of their children. I never imagined that I would be presented with such an incredible opportunity fresh out of law school. The importance of the work is not lost on me and I cannot wait to begin what I have been working towards for years.”

My appreciation and understanding of the needs and challenges of border communities is a result of having grown up in them. I understood the border to be a permeable membrane that allowed the influx and exchange of cultures and languages. The impact that my community had on me is what drove me to want to serve the immigrant community when I began law school.

My intent to work in immigration law was cemented after interning for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. The focus of my work there was assisting detainees who were deemed “incompetent” to represent themselves in their proceedings. I learned firsthand the difference that having attorney made for my clients, who would have otherwise have been lost in a confusing and complicated immigration system. The demand for more attorneys in the field, only drew me more to the work.

A few weeks before beginning my last year of law school, I volunteered at the Dilley Pro Bono Project, helping women who were seeking asylum in The United States. I was initially only going to work as an interpreter for an attorney, but the need for Spanish speakers was larger than expected. I was subsequently asked to interview women on my own. While I was nervous due to my lack of experience interviewing clients, especially regarding traumatic experiences, I quickly got over it after meeting my first client. The courage and dignity that she displayed despite the horrid experiences she had gone through inspired me. To this day, I still draw courage from her story.

I can still hear in my head the constant wails of young children and sobbing heard during my time at the Dilley Detention Center. Though the experience was heartbreaking, I witnessed the incredible work of the volunteers and advocates who were doing everything possible to empower their clients. Among all the pain and hardship I encountered at the center, I saw humanity in one of its most beautiful and selfless forms.

When my week of volunteering at the center was over, I knew I could never forget the names or faces of the brave women who I had the pleasure of working with. I understood more than ever the need for me to use my legal education and language abilities to fight for the community that molded me.


Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Welcomes Melissa Pena


“I know first-hand the impact one attorney can make for asylum-seeking families detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. Thanks to the support of Equal Justice America, these families will have access to a legal fellow who will stand by their side to fight for their safety, freedom, and family unity.”
–Shalyn Fluharty, Managing Attorney, Dilley Pro Bono Project


“The work being done by TRLA staff at Dilley is some of the most important – and most successful – work being done on behalf of immigrants at detention centers across the country. We are excited to welcome Melissa Peña to the team to expand this vital work.”
–Julia R. Rodriguez, Director of Client Services, TRLA


Katherine Shank

“Now, more than ever before, we need additional capacity in Dilley to ensure every immigrant family receives the legal assistance they deserve. We are grateful to Equal Justice America for providing the opportunity to add a dedicated legal fellow like Melissa to our organization.”
–Robert Doggett, Executive Director, TRLA


“Thank you, Equal Justice America for enabling us to provide additional and much-needed legal support to mothers and children seeking asylum.”
–Brianna Rennix, Staff Attorney, Dilley Pro Bono Project

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Equal Justice America plans to award a second post-graduate fellowship with The Dilley Pro-Bono Project in 2020 to a graduating Columbia law student.


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