Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) is a nonprofit agency that specializes in providing free civil legal services to the poor in a 68-county service area. Established in 1970, TRLA is the largest legal aid provider in Texas and the third largest in the United States.
TRLA's mission is to promote the dignity, self sufficiency, safety, and stability of low income Texans by providing high quality civil legal assistance and related educational services.
Every year the organization provides approximately 20,000 clients with legal services. To be eligible, clients must be at or below 125% of federal poverty guidelines.
TRLA is funded by grants and individual donations. The organization's largest contributor is the Legal Services Corporation.
History of TRLA
Established in 1970, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA) was created for the purpose of providing civil legal services to poor people in ten south Texas counties. Judge James DeAnda, working through the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, sponsored the creation of TRLA for the purpose of receiving funds from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In 1976 the newly organized Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an independent corporation created by Congress, funded hundreds of legal service programs across the country, including TRLA and organizations in urban areas of Southwest Texas.
During the Carter Administration, LSC extended access to civil legal services to every county in the United States and its offshore possessions. By 1980 TRLA had extended its operations to 47 counties in South and West Texas. Austin's legal aid program, founded in 1966, was expanded to include the counties surrounding Travis and the Belton-Ford Hood area and became Legal Aid of Central Texas. Corpus Christi's program in Nueces County was expanded to take on ten more counties in the Coastal Bend region and renamed as the Coastal Bend Legal Services program.
During the years of transition that began with President Reagan's initial attempt to dismantle LSC, LSC programs intensified their efforts to identify funding that could replace, if necessary, the federal money that enabled the provision of legal services to poor people. The 1980s and 1990s saw intensified attacks upon federal funding and resulted in major reductions coupled with additional restrictions on clients who could be served, types of cases that could be taken, and means of advocacy.
In 1984 the Supreme Court of Texas created the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation (TEAJF) to administer funds to support civil legal services for low-income Texans. The first source of those funds was the Interest-on-Lawyer-Trust-Accounts (IOLTA) program which allowed attorneys to pool short-term or nominal deposits made on behalf of clients or third parties into bank accounts in which the accrued interest would be distributed to nonprofit providers of free legal services. In 1997 the Texas Legislature provided a new funding stream for TEAJF to administer when it required people who file lawsuits to include a small add-on fee dedicated to free legal services for low-income Texans. In 2001 the Attorney General of Texas and the Texas Supreme Court agreed that TEAJF should administer a new Crime Victims Civil Legal Services fund dedicated to the provision of free legal services to low-income victims of crime. Finally, in December 2006, the Supreme Court issued an order amending the IOLTA rules so that attorneys had to maintain their IOLTA accounts at banks that pay interest rates comparable to other similarly situated accounts. The Supreme Court's action is expected to generate significant new funding for legal services.
On June 28, 2002, Coastal Bend Legal Services, Bexar County Legal Aid Association, El Paso Legal Assistance Society, and Legal Aid of Central Texas merged into Texas Rural Legal Aid, Inc. to form a new organization to provide legal services to low-income people in a 68-county area of Southwest Texas.
In January 2004, to signify the new program configuration, the name of the organization was changed to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. The service area now includes metropolitan areas of Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Laredo, El Paso, and the lower Rio Grande Valley. With its statewide migrant farmworker program and the six southern states serviced by its Southern Migrant Legal Services office in Nashville, Tennessee (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana), TRLA is now the third largest civil legal services program in the country.
TRLA employs more than 115 full-time attorneys who work with clients in a variety of practice areas including civil rights, disaster relief, domestic violence, housing, human trafficking, immigration, labor and employment, public benefits, and wills/estates.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has offices located in several cities throughout its service area in Texas including Weslaco, Austin, Corpus Christi, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Edinburg, El Paso, Harlingen, Laredo, Sinton, and Victoria. TRLA also hosts its Southern Migrant Legal Services in Nashville, Tennessee.
TRLA runs numerous projects that are aimed at helping people with a variety of issues. Among them are:
Legal Access to Rural Shelters Initiative (LARS)
which works with shelters to provide legal assistance to victims of domestic violence from the moment they seek help with a shelter.
which provides free legal assistance to nonprofit organizations in Texas that work to include the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.
Texas Taxpayer Assistance Project
which services low-income tax payers who have problems with the IRS.
In August 2007, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid was involved in a case against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to the lawsuit, FEMA was prohibiting TRLA attorneys from being at their Disaster Recovery Centers to help victims of the summer floods. TRLA claimed that this action was unjustified, a change from previous policy, violated freedom of speech, and violated victims' rights to legal representation
Judge Sam Sparks ordered the organizations to meet and resolve the matter privately, wherein FEMA dropped its restrictions
In the aftermath of the fires that covered California in late October, volunteer lawyers used the regulations in the new ABA-FEMA agreement to secure the same rights to helping fire victims secure legal help
In October 2007, TRLA sued the Department of Labor for failing to verify reports submitted by several companies in the Rio Grande Valley that American workers were not available for seasonal employment
In December 2007, a lawsuit was filed against the City of Brownsville for violating the First Amendment rights of day laborers that stood on the 14th block of Adams Street for employment. The lawsuit alleged that a section of the Texas Transportation Code was unconstitutional. The City settled the lawsuit and, due to the settlement, the question of the constitutionality of the Code was not answered
Also in December, TRLA began providing legal advice to border residents affected by the construction of a wall along the Texas-Mexico border
TRLA's focus was to ensure that property owners were informed of their legal rights and did not feel intimidated or pressured to comply with government requests.
In 2008, TRLA began representing 48 mothers of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS)in the massive custody proceedings that resulted from a raid of the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. TRLA filed a writ of mandamus in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, TX that resulted in ruling that Child Protective Services improperly removed more than 400 children from the ranch in early April. The State of Texas appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. TRLA was victorious again and, as a result, all of the children were returned to their parents.