People Issue

People 2015: Bill Holston and Melissa Weaver, Taking the Initiative for Human Rights

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz.

The flood of Central American children who poured across the Rio Grande last fall has ebbed. Anti-immigrant protesters have packed up their signs, and reporters and camera trucks have long moved on to the next crisis. But at the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, the heart-breaking, soul-fulfilling work to secure safe homes for desperate people continues.

“Children crossing from all over the world, not just Central American children but children from other places as well, has been going on a long time,” Bill Holston, HRI’s executive director says. “The thing that changed last year was just the sheer numbers of children from Central America.”

“And the media attention,” says Melissa Weaver, the attorney for HRI’s Women and Children’s Program. “There had never been any sort of media attention at all to what we had been doing, and so for us … it was totally different to have people actually want to know.”

HRI has always had a good roster of attorneys who volunteer to take on the cases of indigent immigrants who come to HRI seeking help, and those numbers increased last year in response to the crisis on the border. Some come from the ranks of business or real estate law, looking for an opportunity to make a human connection.

“We hear this all the time from our volunteer lawyers. ‘What I do everyday, I like it … but it doesn’t change the world, and it doesn’t feed my soul,’” Holston says.
HRI is working about 100 active cases now, connecting clients with lawyers, assisting the lawyers, vetting cases or representing clients directly. As executive director, Holston works getting donor and grant funding to keep the agency operating, while Weaver deals with women and children escaping from desperate, violent and abusive situations.

HRI has a 100 percent success rate with the child immigrant cases it takes on, partly because it carefully screens those seeking help, which often means saying no to people with heart-wrenching stories.

“It was very hard to say no to people who were coming in here and had to go to court and they had no legal relief. Some of them had very sad stories, but it didn’t qualify for legal relief … That was in some ways the hardest part,” Holston says.

Immigrants seeking political asylum face a hard path in court even if HRI takes the case, and in any case, the stories of violence and suffering, especially from children, take their toll.

“There are days that I just feel that a lot of people are evil,” Weaver says.

The reward that balances the horror is seeing their clients win new lives, free from abuse and the constant fear of deportation. Their clients often go on to school, good jobs — a life.

“A lot of them come in so broken, and by the time they leave us, 18 months later, they’re a completely different person,” Weaver says.

“That’s the ticket,” Holston adds.