Barbara's Fire

Attorney, teacher, and veteran fighter for freedom, Barbara Hines retires from a career mentoring students

Barbara's Fire
photo courtesy of UT School of Law

Barbara Hines has spent a lifetime fighting the good fight. Longtime clinical professor of law, and currently co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the UT-Austin School of Law, she got her start in the trenches of the abortion rights battles – at a time when the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision became a flashpoint and milestone – before eventually switching her focus to the similarly polarizing issue of immigrants' rights.

Today, as she eases into professional retirement by December's end, she is inevitably reflective. While clearly proud of her body of work, she is nonetheless discouraged by so much political regression about the very issues for which she has fought so long and so hard. "I went to law school to work on women's issues, to fight for access to abortion and birth control before going into the immigration field," she says. "We're going through the rise of the Tea Party, and there's been a pushback on women's rights. Having worked on these issues, we're still fighting those battles."

The Legislature has steadily and severely limited access to women's reproductive health clinics, creating draconian rules that have forced many operators to close their doors. On the immigrant rights front, the battle-hardened attorney expresses disbelief at the pitch of anti-immigrant sentiment that's swept the country over the last few years, a backlash powerfully emblematic in the form of the (now-shuttered) T. Don Hutto Residential Center in rural Texas – actually more prison than refuge, for "teeming masses yearning to be free." Thanks in part to the efforts of Hines and her students, the center was ultimately closed.

"To see children in prison ...," she says – suddenly silent, as her thoughts drift to the scenes she saw in the Hutto center, some 30 miles north of Austin. "I never thought I'd see that. A child should never be in a prison," she says of the facility where roughly half of the detainees were children.

Hines was among the first legal representatives for Hutto detainees, bringing (along with her legal expertise) crayons and markers to entertain the children, as the New Yorker reported in a lengthy March 2008 story in which she figured prominently. (The toys were eventually forbidden when a child's portrayal of the detainees turned up in a Canadian newspaper.) Hines helped bring a lawsuit against the Hutto center that ultimately led to its 2009 closure. "Overall, the Hutto case was a very important one, but took an emotional toll," she recalls. "I spoke out at a press conference and got choked up, which was not very lawyer­ly."

"Just Like Hutto"

The Hutto case for which Hines served as co-counsel was one of her greatest legal victories. But in the years since – just months before her imminent retirement – she's seen history repeat itself, in the Karnes County Residential Center. The facility – this one 100 miles to the south – was established last summer to help contain the exodus of mostly child immigrants, arriving largely from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. "Even though they don't have children in prison uniforms, this is an unlicensed facility just like Hutto. It's run by a private prison corporation just like Hutto. I've been there twice, and saw really stressed-out children and stressed-out mothers – just like Hutto."

As at Hutto, conditions at the Karnes County facility are hardly welcoming to refugees. In op-eds, Hines has assailed such privately run detention centers established under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security to deal with the latest influx of immigrant children. She draws parallels to Hutto, and says the new centers are "stepping back in history to the agency's last failed policy of detaining children and their parents."

Protesters outside the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in 2007
Protesters outside the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in 2007 (photo by Jana Birchum)

How to consider one's life work at the twilight of a career, as social progress seemingly retreats? Sitting at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse – one of her favorite haunts near her Wilshire Wood neighborhood – Hines was in a reflective mood, wondering about a final professional accounting: Is her cup half empty or is it half full? In Austin legal circles, Hines is something of a living legend (former students call her an "icon"), and her renown extends far beyond Texas. National journalists seek out her insights – most recently for National Public Radio, where she appeared Nov. 24, discussing President Obama's executive order on immigration. She also frequently lectures and publishes on topics related to immigration law and immigrants' rights, a legal field in which she's practiced since 1975.

Out of the Dark Ages

Having left high school early, Hines took a semester in Mexico City and first arrived in Austin in 1965, as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, feeling empowered by the early women's liberation movement (aka the "Second Wave"). In 1969, she earned a B.A. with honors in Latin American studies from UT-Austin. She began law school at UT in 1972, then transferred to Boston's North­east­ern University, where in 1975 she received her J.D. before returning to Texas. "When I started law school in the summer of 1972, there were 10 women and 100 men," she recalls. "When I tell my women students that, they say, 'You're from the Dark Ages.'"

In 1996 and 2004, she was a Fulbright scholar in Argentina – stints during which she developed an affinity to the South American country she now regularly visits, the travels made easier by her Spanish fluency. She focused her research there on Argentine immigration law.

Long before that, she had spent her formative years in Brownsville, Texas, where her parents had eventually settled after escaping the Holocaust. "They fell in love with the Mexico border," she says. Both mom and dad are gone now, her father's death preceding his wife's passing in 2007 by 26 years. Hines was also married for six years – "a long time ago," she says pithily – a brief union that produced son Justin Burchard, 33, now a data manager at D.C.- and Chicago-based Civis Analytics, where he does political campaign analysis.

Hines' other professional accomplishments include having served as the first co-director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of Texas, the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project at UT Law, and a current role on the board of directors of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. She's been a litigant on many issues related to the constitutional and statutory rights of immigrants in federal and immigration courts, exemplified by her role in the ACLU lawsuit that eventually led to the closure of the Hutto facility. The lawsuit against the federal government that prefaced the facility's closing led first to an agreement mandating sweeping changes at the detention site; Hines found herself in the national spotlight for her work, as reflected in Margaret Talbot's March 3, 2008 New Yorker story, "The Lost Children."

"The agreement entails a number of changes at Hutto," Talbot wrote, "including eliminating the head-count system, providing pajamas for children, letting kids keep a limited number of toys in their room during the day, making a priority of hiring people with experience in child welfare, and installing curtains around toilets. ... Yet it seems unlikely that these changes would have been made without pressure from the A.C.L.U. lawsuit and from advocates like Barbara Hines and her students."

Last month, Hines was awarded the Massey Award for Teaching Excellence, "presented to a faculty member who embodies the school's priority of providing the highest quality of teaching to its students," according to the UT law school's website. The award is added to a crowded mantle of accolades, including: the 1992 Amer­ican Immi­gration Lawyers Association (AILA) Jack Was­ser­man Award for Excellence in Liti­ga­tion; the 1993 AILA Texas Chapter Litiga­tion Award; the 2002 Texas Law Fellow­ships Excellence in Public Interest Award; the 2007 AILA Elmer Fried Excel­lence in Teach­ing Award; the 2009 MALDEF Excellence in Legal Service Award; and the 2010 National Lawyers Guild Carol Weiss King Award. In 2000, she was named one of the 100 best lawyers in the state, by Texas Lawyer magazine.

Changing Lives

It's those students referenced by The New Yorker – hundreds of them, past and present – who are Hines' greatest source of pride. Over coffee, she described with enthusiasm how she's indirectly responsible for immigration attorneys scattered all over the country – more than 400, she reckons – who have passed through her classes or participated in her legal clinics. Some of those students speak with reverence about their former mentor, relating anecdotes of experiences alongside Hines that transcend mere student-teacher interaction – that were, they say, literally "life-changing."

Hines at a law clinic in Argentina
Hines at a law clinic in Argentina (photo courtesy of National University of Lanus/Pablo Ceriani)

Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch was one of the student attorneys who accompanied Hines to Hutto, tasked with interviewing a family of Iraqi Chaldean Christians who had fled their country after the patriarch had been beaten while being held for ransom. The former student recalled indelible memories of the family, who had first flown to South America before traveling by bus to the San Ysidro border station, where they presented themselves as asylum seekers. "Their months-old baby wore a prison-issued onesie," Lincoln-Goldfinch recalls. "During our interview, the mother asked me if I would hold her baby because she said I smelled like the outside world; at the end of our interview, she asked if I could sneak her baby out with me. I remember crying with some friends that night, just baffled that our government would treat asylum-seekers this way. This is the life-changing moment that Barbara gave me." Lincoln-Goldfinch now works at a private practice, specializing in immigration.

"I knew that I had found my calling, and this was an area of the law that would interest and engage me for the rest of my career," she said. "[Barbara]'s got this inexhaustible well of interest and respect for her students," she added. "She cries with us when we win our cases. She is the perfect teacher."

Erica Schommer met Hines as a second-year law student in the fall 2000 legal clinic. Intent on focusing on international human rights policy work, she ended up completing two more semesters in the clinic, altering her career path. "I was hooked," Schom­mer says. "I have now been practicing immigration law for 11 years, and I can't imagine being in another practice area. She helped me get my first job and has helped countless others. There is nobody in the field I respect more."

Amelia Ruiz Fischer, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, has worked with Hines on a number of matters, including at Hutto. There is also ongoing work related to the federal Secure Communities program, under which the Travis County Sheriff's Office detains undocumented immigrants at the behest of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, suspending standard due-process safeguards. The practice has led to the deportation of roughly 5,000 county immigrants since its local implementation in 2009 – ironically, the same year as the closure of the Hutto facility. "Barbara has this thing that's undeniable and not something easily explained," Ruiz Fischer says. "It's a fire. It's this fire she has that makes you want to be a part of it. It's contagious and infectious. She touches people's lives."

Ruiz Fischer credits Hines with having introduced her to Jordan Pollock, her immigration clinic partner she now calls her "professional soul mate." Hines was there to witness her students' first legal victory, the granting of asylum for a resident of the northeast African country of Eritrea. "Barbara was sitting nearby," Ruiz Fischer recalled with emotion. "The feeling of hearing the judge say that the application was granted ... Jordan and I started crying, and then I see Barbara and she's so happy, with tears in her eyes. I really can't say enough about the kind of person she is, and what kind of impact she's had on my professional and personal life."

Focusing on Victory

With her retirement imminent, Hines has taken up tango lessons, and amplified her Hatha yoga regimen that she says has long kept her grounded. "My parents practiced Judaism, but I'm agnostic. Yoga is the closest to spiritualism for me." She concedes that the legal profession – in particular a specialty like her own, centered on a vulnerable population – can take an emotional toll. But as she ponders her retirement, she'll adopt the same advice she's always given her students: "You have to focus on the victories."

She mentions how energized she was in watching the June 2013 filibuster of state Sen. Wendy Davis – alongside hundreds of other inspired women – as Davis held sway for 11 hours in her attempt to block Senate Bill 5, the omnibus bill to greatly restrict access to abortion care. "It was very uplifting for me," she says. "Even though we lost the battle, it gives me hope for the next generation of women." (Davis initially blocked the bill, but it was subsequently passed in a special-called session.)

She's also buoyed by the heightened current interest in immigrants' plight, a far cry from when she tried largely in vain to draw media attention to Hutto. "There is now a whole lot of interest in the pro bono community and in the media. I couldn't get anyone interested in what was going on in Hutto, nobody. I was begging people to write about Hutto."

Belying her 67 years, Hines had bounded into the coffee shop with a youthful energy, bedecked in a colorful handmade dress woven with flowers, a gift a friend brought back for her from Pátzcuaro in Michoacán. After a couple of hours of coffee and conversation, a friend arrived to coax her to a larger table across the room, where several other friends had gathered at the end of the workday. "I feel really lucky when I look back at my career," she said before joining her friends. "I accomplished much more than I expected, when I was an insecure lawyer unable to speak in public. I feel really fortunate that I found a career this meaningful."

Watching her settle into the mix – after requisite abrazos from those gathered – it seemed clear that, even in retirement and away from the teaching role that has long enlivened and energized her, Hines is going to do just fine.

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