Anchor in Safety

These two! Sweet, loving, hardworking parents of polite, studious children – finally safe from persecution – finally able to breathe easy.
Founded by social worker Serena Simmons Connelly and lawyer Elizabeth Healy, the Dallas-based Human Rights Initiative of North Texas has grown into an award-winning agency helping immigrant survivors of human rights abuses from all over the world. Our courageous and resilient clients are eligible to apply for legal status under the humanitarian provisions of United States immigration laws and policies: they are asylum seekers fleeing persecution; children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected; and victims of family violence and violent crimes. HRI’s Legal team partners with a network of over 250 pro bono attorneys from top DFW firms and corporations to help clients access the U.S. Immigration System, and our Social Services team offers transitional support and referrals to help address trauma and ease the hardships of profound displacement. At HRI, all of our services are free, and all are designed to help forge a path to safety, stability, and opportunity. For more information,

Equal Justice Works Fellow To Join HRI!

Human Rights Initiative of North Texas is thrilled to announce that Emily Heger will join us in the Fall as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. During her two-year fellowship, Emily will represent survivors of gender-based violence seeking asylum in the United States, while broadening the precedent of our nation’s asylum law. Emily will also dedicate efforts towards educating the immigrant and legal communities and mobilizing a nationwide collective of pro bono attorneys.

Emily’s fellowship is sponsored by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and AT&T. We look forward to Emily joining the HRI team!

(Pilar Ferguson, Attorney – Director, HRI Asylum Program)

Alicia Carrizales – ESL Instructor, HRI’s Social Services Department

If there was a photo of what it means to go above and beyond, it would be a photo of Alicia Carrizales. Even after the students leave, Alicia Carrizales stays. She wipes down the table tops, she collects all the supplies, she even takes the trash out.

Pinched nerves, inclement weather – nothing keeps Alicia away from her volunteering spots at HRI.

“I absolutely love what I do. Sometimes, it may start off as a challenge, but for me it is a pleasure to see that light in our students’ eyes when a concept is understood – practiced, used, and mastered.”

Alicia’s students seemed to be just as dedicated as she is. “They are amazing and so willing to learn. New books or subjects are accepted, questioned, and used! I love that. I love these adult learners. Come rain or shine, they motivate me to run out and do my job.”

HRI’ Social Services Department is lucky to have Alicia’s attention. We are utterly thankful for her presence.

Would you like to volunteer for HRI? We have a plethora of positions and tasks. Check in today!

New Fee Structure for Asylum Seekers

In a memorandum signed Monday, the current administration called upon the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, giving them 90 days to implement a fee structure that will charge asylum-seekers for asylum applications and work permits. HRI’s Executive Director, Bill Holston, weighs in here:

Often forced to leave quickly, asylum-seekers are a vulnerable group that rarely has any assets or funds. Refugee support groups and institutions believe that installing a fee system for applications and work permits will further push asylum-seekers into poverty and leave them even more vulnerable to victimization. Cost of filing applications on various visas is already quite steep; this proposal strikes a major blow.


All of HRI’s services have always been 100% free to our clients. In the past, we have not paid client filing fees for work authorization, green cards, and the like, mostly because our clients fall within the guidelines of policies designed to provide humanitarian protection and those providing aid to indigent applicants.

However, the current administration has sought to curtail protections and limit or eliminate financial assistance. Therefore we can no longer count on the fact that individuals, who should obtain waivers for fees, will receive them.  Already, we find our clients are facing increasing difficulties meeting the filing costs. 

This week, in a memorandum signed 4/29/2019, the current administration has called upon the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, giving them 90 days to implement a fee structure that will charge asylum-seekers for asylum applications and work permits. We want to be prepared for this emerging need.

Did you know? An Employment Authorization Document can cost $410? In FY18, HRI helped clients file for 290 EADs: 187 first-time and 103 EAD renewals.* An Adjustment of Status (Green Card) costs between $750 and $1225. HRI clients applied for 122 Green Cards in FY18.

We are establishing a fund within our annual budget to supports clients struggling to meet some of these costs. Your additional gift of any amount can make a real difference for an asylum seeker who only wants to work to support her family. Help us prepare for even greater needs that will arise if the most recent memorandum succeeds in eliminating all fee waivers.

*Under current policy, not all EAD applications incur fees. Fees are charged for all EAD renewals and EAD applications for family members who are not primary U Visa or Asylum applicants.

For the past 19 years, HRI has provided 100% free legal and social services, not just to asylum seekers but to various other vulnerable refugees and immigrants. HRI’s transparent business model, that includes extensive pro-bono and volunteer networks, multiplies every dollar donated by three. This is a critical time to do critical work. You can help.

Meet Kali Cohn, HRI’s Inaugural Director of Advocacy!

We are thrilled to announce that this April, Kali Cohn joined HRI as our inaugural Director of Advocacy. Prior to joining HRI, Kali served as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, where she worked to help protect immigrants’ and LGBTQ rights, and helped redress unjust policing, mass incarceration, and criminalization of poverty. She brings her extensive experience advocating for change through the courts, legislature, and local governments with her to this new role at HRI.

HRI’s Executive Director Bill Holston noted, “I met Kali through her advocacy for immigrant rights in the DFW advocacy community. First. as one of the volunteer lawyers at DFW airport during the Muslim Ban, and later with the steering committee with the Force for Immigration Rights and Empowerment. I’m elated that she will be devoting her considerable skills as an advocate to HRI.”

As the Advocacy Director, Kali will help HRI realize our longtime vision of influencing policies that make a difference in the lives of our clients. For nearly 20 years, this community has leveraged its collective power to connect our clients with the legal and social services they need. We are excited to explore how that power can improve the systems that our attorneys and clients navigate every day. “I am honored to amplify the outstanding work that HRI has moved forward for so many years, and to highlight the opportunities for our community to stand together to continue to advocate for just humanitarian policies,” says Kali.

Will Kali at the helm, our community can look forward to increased opportunities to learn more about what you’re seeing in the news and its real-life impacts, to connect with us about pressing policy issues, and to plug into opportunities to make change.

Welcome, Kali!

Meet a Super-Star of HRI, KARRIE BLACKWELL

How did you first hear about HRI? From my job coach, Cara Prentice

What is your driving force in volunteering with our agency? I enjoy doing office work, and really like working with Layne.

Please briefly share an ‘aha moment’ (a moment of discovery or insight) that stood out to you during your time with HRI. There is always volunteer work to do, so I’m glad I get to help in the office.

What is something you have learned from your experience working with HRI? I learned that shredders overheat a lot 🙂

Anything else you would like to share about volunteering here at HRI? I like to see Layne. Other people should volunteer here, it’s great!


How did you first hear about HRI?

Missy: Pro bono department at my firm

Stephen: Through Vinson & Elkin’s pro bono program.

What is your driving force in volunteering with our agency?

Missy: I am in corporate law in my day to day practice and when I have the opportunity I enjoy taking cases that let me make a more personal difference

Stephen: The opportunity to help make life changing impact for someone in need.

Please briefly share your case and success.

Missy: R.F.; asylum

Stephen: Missy Spohn and I helped an asylum applicant, R.F., with his asylum application. R. had a powerful and compelling story, coming to the U.S. from the D.R.C., and was resolute in an extremely trying and difficult time. R.’s application was successful, and it has been so gratifying to eventually see his family join him here in the U.S., and now become a U.S. citizen.

What is something you have learned from your experience with your client?

Missy: I should thank God every day for the health and safety of me and my family. We often take our blessings for granted.

Stephen: That I am grateful to R. for allowing us to be a part of his story.

Personal Fun Fact: When I’m not _____ I enjoy ________________.

Missy: When not Working, I enjoy spending time with my husband and two little girls. But when I can get those girls to bed early, I enjoy spending time alone with a good book!

Stephen: When I’m not working, I enjoy trying to keep up with our three young boys.


I came to HRI through a group called Executives in Action.  The group paired non-profits with “executives” who filled a need for the non-profit.  I came to HRI when it had taken on a large number of VAWA and U Visa cases because another non-profit (Safehaven in Ft. Worth) had lost funding to handle these cases.   The original idea was for a person (who turned out to be me) to come in and help the non-profit handle these 23-30 cases.  However, once I got here I stayed.

The opportunity to truly change someone’s life by giving them the opportunity to build a life in the United States free from the violence in their home countries and abuse, neglect or abandonment in their families.

It is amazing to see former clients blossom once they are safe and given the opportunity to live free from fear.  The SIJS client who was subject to horrible gang violence in his home country who had emotionally shut down and couldn’t speak English is not in college studying computers and giving back by acting as a translator.  The victim of domestic abuse who has prospered to the point where she is supporting her family and no longer qualifies for HRI’s free legal services when she is ready to become a U.S. citizen. 

Having a client with little to nothing bring in a cake, or tamales or flowers just to thank you and the HRI staff is worth more than words can describe.

Believe me – it’s good for your soul.  There are many ways to volunteer and each can be satisfying.

HRI’s Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) Featured on HIP Giving!

“As a Latina woman,
coming to the US was an eye-opening experience. I saw women behind desks,
teaching, standing in court. You don’t see that where I am from. As a young
Latina immigrant, I was always told why was I wasting my time going to school?
School isn’t for people like you.”

-Jasmin M. a 17-year-old client from Honduras

We submitted our Youth Empowerment Program as part of the #GoMujeres campaign by HIPGive in celebration of International Women’s Day. Once we our proposal was accepted, the campaign went live on Friday, 3/8/2019. We were overwhelmed by the love and support shown to us by our community as we raised 40% of our $5,000 goal in 3 days!

WHAT IS YOUTH EMPOWERMENT PROGRAM (YEP)? We piloted our Youth Empowerment Program last year. The young Latinas served are all immigrants who have overcome abuse. They are courageous, resilient, and resourceful, and we want to help them and others like them to reach their full potential by growing and deepening the program this year. Please let us know if you want to learn more about this and the other great work of HRI.

WHAT IS HIPGIVE? HIPGive is the first and only bilingual crowdfunding platform that champions on advancing Latino social impact projects and promoting philanthropy across the Americas.

WHY GIVE TO YEP THROUGH HIPGIVE? Since April 2014, Latino-focused nonprofits have raised more than $2 million USD through 560 projects on HIPGive, reaching more than 200,000 web visitors, and a social media audience of more than 30,000 individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in social impact initiatives serving Latino communities. HIPGIVE also provides financial incentives to the fundraisers and donors in the form of contests, matching grants and other tools.

WHAT’S THE YEP CAMPAIGN STATUS RIGHT NOW? By the publication time of this note, we have raised $2,005 of our $5,000 goal and we are 11 days away from closing of our campaign. Even a small gift makes a difference to this simple, but effective program. Help us meet our goal by donating today!

HRI Executive Director Honored By Dallas Bar Association

Bill Holston, Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, was honored by the Dallas Bar Association at the 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon as the recipient of the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Award. The award is presented to local leaders whose lives and practice exemplifies the principles embodied by Dr. King’s leadership. Former recipients include the late Hon. Barefoot Sanders, Mayor Ron Kirk, Kim Askew, Rhonda Hunter, E. Leon Carter, Dr. Walter Sutton, Jr., Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, Rev. Richie Butler, and Justice Carolyn Wright.

Holston was already an active volunteer lawyer for HRI when he joined as Executive Director, in 2012, earning HRI’s Angel of Freedom Award in recognition of his commitment to provide excellent pro bono services to our clients. While the awards and citations Holston has received, in commendation of his superior experience and work in the field of law, are numerous, Holston’s true gift is his Heart that he brings to the face of our mission.

HRI is proud to follow the leadership this amazing human being – Congratulations, Bill Holston.

(Here is a text of the Holston’s speech delivered at the award ceremony.)

Bill Holston – Dallas Bar Association at the 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon as the recipient of the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Award

“Thank you Laura for that gracious introduction. And thank you to the Board of Directors and amazing staff of the Dallas Bar Association for this tremendous honor. And thank you to my friends, Board members of HRI, and our awesome staff. Also my wonderful supportive family, especially my beautiful esposa, Jill.

It is particularly gratifying to me to be given an award named in honor of Dr. King. You see, I was born in Mobile, Al. in 1956, in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Now Dr. King is an icon, but when and where I grew up and in my home, he was a pariah. When my mother saw me reading MLK’s Why we Can’t Wait, she said, “Why would you read that, he was a Communist.” And my mother was a teacher, and an educated person. I’m ashamed to say Dr. King’s death was not mourned by anyone I knew.

To really put this in further context, I’d like us to recall an infamous year in the history of Dallas: 1963, We’re familiar with the assassination of the President that year, but the year began with a January 4 1963 visit by Dr. King to Dallas. He was here for a rally to raise money for poll tax payments for African American Voters. The Poll Tax was an instrument of voter suppression of people of color. Dr King was not warmly received by city leaders or the White press.

His speech was protested by the members of the State’s Rights Party. There was a bomb threat.

Just a few miles away was a monument to Confederate Generals, where it remains today, to our ongoing shame.

Dr. King made the status quo uncomfortable as do all of the prophets among us calling for justice. There is usually a price for speaking truth to power. Dr. King paid with his life. Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop, beatified this year by the Catholic Church paid with his life for his advocacy for disenfranchised people.

For thirty years I’ve been inspired by the brave activists who faced torture and prison for standing up against the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed, who we have the privilege to represent at HRI.

In April 1963, Just four months after visiting Dallas, Dr. King was in solitary confinement in jail in Birmingham in my home state of Alabama, where he penned the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it he wrote words, smuggled out of jail, that if we take them seriously, still make us uncomfortable:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”  

Activists still make us squirm. For instance two weeks ago, at a city event to lay a wreath for MLK, a group of Dallas Black Clergy (including my friends Michael Watters and Edwin Robinson. ) to challenge city leaders to move beyond lip-service in honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And issued what they called a renewed call for Civil Rights in Dallas.

Reverend Robinson said, “The time has ceased to honor Dr King, but not to stand for what Dr King stood for.” The plan outlined by the ministers call for the following:

• Confederate Monuments – “We demand that our city grant the requests of North Texans for Historical Justice, In Solidarity, Faith Forward Dallas and Faith in Texas to remove any and all monuments, plaques, and the like celebrating the confederacy and our country’s war on the freedom and equality of people of color, and Black people particularly, from public view on all public property excluding inside museums documenting the real and honest history of our city, state and country.”

• Police Review Board – “We are demanding complete and proper funding and resources for the civilian police review board as proposed by community organizations Mothers Against Police Brutality, Next Generation Action Network, the ACLU of Texas and Faith Forward Dallas.

• Affordable Housing – “We demand that our city support the work of Bianca and Derek Avery and Faith in Texas through instituting form-based code as the zoning policy for the entire city..

• Paid Sick Leave – “We demand that all private and public employees have access to earned paid sick leave

• Livable Wage: An increase in minimum wage to maintain a living wage for workers.

Speaking of making us uncomfortable, I’d like to make a few remarks about the present assault on immigrant rights.

I have devoted the last 30 years to the cause of immigrant justice. I’ve been critical of every single administration during this time.

I have become passionate about this, NOT because I feel sorry for immigrants. Instead it is. Because, even though the USCIS has removed Nation of Immigrants from its mission statement, we remain a nation of immigrants, and because I believe that immigrants offer their best to our country.

As just one small example, there was the Ethiopian Asylum seeker I represented in Immigration Court, a torture survivor, who when I asked him why he continued his activism despite prison and torture replied through his tears, ‘because there is a price of freedom, a cost for democracy.’ Isn’t our country better with him in it? I think so. But that idea is under assault.

One of my colleagues, an immigration advocate said, “These are historic times. These are times that define us.” And they are.

Right now Toddlers go to court without lawyers

Right now asylum seekers, torture survivors remain locked up in remote detention centers without access to counsel.

Right now, asylum seekers are illegally turned away from our borders, forced to wait to enter the US to even apply for asylum.

I invite you to read the stories of the assaults on transgender people waiting in line for the ability to even file a claim for asylum.

Right now the acting Attorney General attacks the case law protecting women survivors of domestic violence, and imposes quotas on immigration judges Right Now Dreamers still lack a path to status.

Right Now immigrant children are still being taken from their parents. Meanwhile, political leaders defame immigrants as well as their advocates.

My brothers and sisters of the bar these things are unjust. And we have the ability to confront them.

But I fear we lack the will to do so. I don’t say this to make you feel bad. I’m very proud of our bar and how much pro bono we do. I’m proud of the commitment of so many lawyers who change lives every day with pro bono services. I’m proud of the leaders of law firms that promote a pro bono culture. I’m proud of the award winning program of the Dallas Bar, headed by my friend Michelle Alden at DVAP, and all the lawyers who work in the trenches every day. I’m proud of my staff at Human Rights Initiative, changing lives every single day.

But it’s not enough and still a fraction of lawyers who do the lion’s share of pro bono. And there are still firms in this city that do not truly support it. We know this, because: DVAP struggles to place cases We are for the first time struggling to place all of our cases with pro bono lawyers. But there is much to celebrate.

I’m very proud of my colleagues at the FIRE Collaborative, who are here today: Hanna Alexander of the City of Dallas Maria De Jesus Garza from Workers Defense Project Kali Cohn of the ACLU Julio Acosta of Faith in Texas Angela Andrade from the North Texas Dream Team, and Nic Hernandez at Raices Gloria Granados at Light of Hope These are the young people who are showing those of us from my generation how to devote your entire life in the fight for justice. They will do much more with their lives than I have. Truly they are carrying on the legacy of Dr. King. Because in them I see people not only working for justice, but also creating what Dr. King Called The Beloved Community, which makes clear that activism should be based in LOVE:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957

It’s never easy to love your opponents, at least not for me, but we must. We are energized by youthful activists, but we also stand on the shoulders of those who went before us: People like the father of pro bono in our city: Judge Merrill Hartman and groundbreaking minority lawyers like Adelfa Callejo and the first awardee of this award Louis Bedford Jr, who became the 4th African American Member of the Dallas Bar. Mr. Bedford, who I was privileged to know and have cases with was a consummate professional. He, along with attorneys W. J. Durham and C. B. Bunkley, defended Wiley and Bishop College students arrested while participating in sit-ins. He also served along with Thurgood Marshall as legal counsel on a case to declare “separate but equal” unconstitutional in Dallas public schools.

Louis Bedford became the first Black judge to serve in Dallas County, serving from 1966 to 1980 He provided legal services to activists from the SNVCC and SCLC, including my friends Rev Peter Johnson and Earnest McMillan, both of whom paid heavy prices including jail and beatings for their activism. It is important to recall that also it wasn’t until 1963, the Dallas Bar admitted its first African American member, Fred Finch, after refusing to do so in 1956.

Justice work requires persistence and a non acceptance of the status quo. It is very hard work to challenge the status quo, but justice work, real justice work has always required agitation! People in need of justice need allies, and they need our voices. They need us to not be timid.

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr King addressed the clergy urging him to wait: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men (and I would add WOMEN) willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” And so we must be shaken from indifference, confronted with the facts of injustice. It requires the uncomfortable reminder of injustices.

In 1789, The great British Abolitionist William Wilberforce in his first speech before Parliament to abolish the slave trade provided details of atrocities and then said: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” It was another 18 years before this was accomplished.

People sometimes ask me if I’m hopeful. I am hopeful. But, what does hope really mean? I am hopeful in the same way as Vaclev Havel, Czech Dissident and later president of the Czech Republic Havel wrote, “Hope……. is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’…Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

We all need to remember that activists throughout our history have persevered when things seemed dark and hopeless.

Opponents of Nazi Occupation, lynchings of African Americans, Jim Crow, and criminal prosecution of homosexuals, all persisted in their activism when there seemed to be no hope. And sometimes they were required to labor for many years. And there are fights that are ongoing, Like the issues facing immigrants and our fellow transgender and non binary gendered fellow citizens.

But many activists have lived to see that the words of Nobel Prize Laureate Poet, Seamus Heaney are true: “History says, don’t hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme. And finally that leaves us with a challenge”

As we reflect on the many human rights challenges which we are aware of, I’m reminded of the words of Michael Higgins the Irish Human Rights activist:

“To look at bodies on an abandoned rubbish tip, to write details of torture, are experiences that cannot ever be obliterated. To risk a gaze at such wounds of humanity is to choose to be changed forever… To choose to know is to risk being presented with a dilemma. That dilemma, put simply, is that, once one knows, you can, from that moment, live only in the bad faith of guilty silence or act.”

We are so proud of our Executive Director, Bill Holston!