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'We've Got to Do Something About These Kids'

How Kathleen Gasparian launched a program in Louisiana to help unaccompanied immigrant children

Published in 2014 Louisiana Super Lawyers Magazine — January 2014

Last summer, Kathleen Gasparian attended a church fundraiser where the buzz was all about the surge of unaccompanied children—fleeing narcoterrorism, violence and poverty—making their way from Central America to Louisiana, only to face deportation.

“Everybody kept coming up to me and going, ‘We’ve got to do something about these kids,’” says the founder of Gasparian Immigration in New Orleans. “On the drive home, I turned to my husband and said, ‘Oh no, I think I’m the one who has to do something about these kids!’”

First, she came up with a catchy name for the project: PB&J, for Pro Bono & Juveniles (“I have a knack,” she jokes). Then she knew she’d need attorneys, screeners, translators and people willing to do whatever was needed to handle children’s deportation cases. “We had such an amazing outpouring of support from the community,” she says. “Basically everybody I talked to was very helpful and so generous with their time and their contacts. It just really snowballed.” 

Judges Jay C. Zainey of the Eastern District of Louisiana and Andrea Price Janzen of the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court championed Gasparian’s cause in the legal community. The Hispanic Apostolate of the local archdiocese offered space for the program; Catholic Charities of New Orleans helped with publicity and administration for a CLE; and Catholic Charities in Baton Rouge screened the kids. Staff from Gasparian’s then-law firm, Ware Gasparian, pitched in to help. 

In just three months, she was ready to offer a CLE course to teach lawyers from various practice areas the best strategies to keep the children in the U.S. “I figured, when I started the project, I was going to have to go beg every local immigration attorney to take a case, and I’d be lucky if I placed a dozen kids,” she recalls. “In the end, we had over 120 people attend the CLE, plus we had a separate training for nonlawyers [to become] volunteer interpreters, which I think had another 30 or 40 people attend. So we were able, in one fell swoop, to get lawyers for 60 kids.”

Gasparian’s own childhood gives her special empathy for the children arriving in Louisiana, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. As a “military brat,” she grew up in far-flung places, including Asia. It was an amazing experience, she says, but it showed her how tough it can be to transition to a new environment. Plus, her grandfather came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor many years ago, sent by parents who wanted him to escape a grim situation in Armenia.

Gasparian also is a relatively new mom. “I kept thinking here are kids not quite as young as [my daughter] is—I mean, she’s not even 2,” she says, “and what it would take for me to send my child away or for me to leave my child, and how horrible those conditions would have to be. And how much I would want to know that somebody on the other end was going to help.”

The kids PB&J serves come from a variety of circumstances. One set of sisters from Honduras, ages 12 and 17, actually reunited with their mother by coming to the U.S. The mom had left their abusive father and came to work and send money home to her parents, who were caring for the girls. But their father continued to be abusive and neglectful and street gangs began harassing the sisters—a common problem, Gasparian says—and the decision was made to send them to the U.S. The early phases of their case have gone well.

“We’ve had really wonderful results so far in front of the state court judges in these first cases,” she says. “So we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to protect a lot of these kids.”

PB&J was part of Gasparian’s motivation to launch her own solo practice in February, though her previous firm supported the program. “We had a great dedication to pro bono there,” she says, “but I just realized, for me to be able to carry on the level I wanted to with PB&J, and to keep my family first, that a much smaller, scaled-down practice was where I needed to go.”

Gasparian hopes that PB&J will grow to one day have a full-time attorney at the helm. She would then step back but remain involved in the fundraising, recruiting and mentoring. Currently, the program partners with the Pro Bono Project in New Orleans, which has taken on finding kids, administering the program and overseeing case management. But for now, the project’s her baby.

She says, “I have a hard time believing that the world is all bad when I see how much people help.”

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