Five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the situation on the island remains dire, and states throughout the nation have welcomed Puerto Rican refugees—who are U.S. citizens—to the mainland. Here in Massachusetts, several thousand Puerto Ricans have sought refuge with friends and relatives, mostly in Springfield, New Bedford, Worcester, and Boston. Massachusetts public schools have already enrolled approximately 2,000 students from the hurricane-ravaged island. In his state of the Commonwealth address this week, Governor Charlie Baker said that state agencies are working to streamline services for thousands of Puerto Rican residents as they settle in Massachusetts. And he has previously said that Puerto Rican refugees would be in need of “financial assistance, housing, health care, jobs or reunification services.”
These new residents will also require civil legal assistance. Civil legal aid attorneys have long played a critical role in helping people recover from natural disasters. They accelerate the recovery process for people with limited financial resources by helping them resolve housing issues, replace important legal identification papers, make insurance claims, apply for FEMA benefits, combat contractor scams that often proliferate in the aftermath of widespread property destruction, and deal with other unforeseen legal matters that surface in chaotic times. Even child custody issues can arise if a parent is forced to seek safety far from their storm-damaged residence.
That’s why the Louisiana Civil Justice Center (LCJC), an organization founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide disaster legal aid to its victims, sprang into action last September after Hurricane Irma lashed the Virgin Islands, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Maria’s wrath. In partnership with FEMA and the American Bar Association, LCJCdeployed its disaster legal hotline as a central intake point for hurricane victims to receive legal information and referrals to appropriate agencies and legal advocates.
“The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is likely to be a Katrina-level event,” said LCJC Executive Director Jonathan Rhodes in announcing the plan. “Of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, we know the value of legal assistance as survivors rebuild homes and communities.”
This burgeoning need was very much on the minds of attorneys lobbying the state legislature a few weeks ago for increased investment in civil legal aid. Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court addressed over 650 attorneys at the State House before they fanned out to meet with lawmakers, and reminded them of the increased burden on civil legal aid programs that will be assisting numerous Hurricane Maria refugees.
As civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts rise to meet the needs of Hurricane Maria refugees, they do so on top of existing needs among some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents. Civil legal aid programs help people avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence. Currently, lack of funding forces civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts to turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.
The work of legal aid programs does not just benefit clients. The return on the state’s investment in civil legal assistance is high. In fiscal year 2016, new revenue for legal aid clients and cost savings to the Commonwealth from legal aid work totaled an estimated $49.2 million, of which $15.9 million was in the form of new federal revenue.
But that’s not why we should invest more in civil legal aid. As Gants also reminded us on Thursday, the best way to judge a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Those who are eligible for civil legal aid, among them Hurricane Maria refugees, are among our most vulnerable neighbors and we should be giving them all the help they need.
Lonnie Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Jacquelynne Bowman is the Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services.