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October 15, 2017

PR Bar of Florida works to relocate displaced Puerto Rican law students
17 law schools express an interest in taking on students
By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Anthony Suarez’s wife can’t stop crying ever since Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised.

“For every Puerto Rican, including a Puerto Rican like myself born on the mainland, there is a tremendous emotional attachment,” said Suarez, a Florida lawyer who lives in Orlando and is president of the 200-member Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida.

They have family members in Puerto Rico struggling in Maria’s aftermath that has left 3.4 million residents of the U.S. commonwealth without the basics of food, fuel, and water.

Suarez’s family members living in Aguadilla are getting drinking water from the river and cooking what’s left of their supply of food over a campfire.

While many members of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida are busy raising money for water, batteries, and food, Suarez didn’t want to duplicate efforts. He brainstormed for a unique way his voluntary bar association could help.

He remembered how law students at Tulane University were displaced after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Why not bring displaced law students in Puerto Rico to Florida to continue their studies?

So Suarez sent letters to all of Florida’s law schools. Within two days, he received positive responses from Barry University, Florida A&M University, University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida International University, and Nova Southeastern University.

The following week, on October 2, Suarez added law schools at the University of Connecticut, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Missouri, St. Thomas University, Touro School of Law, Columbia University, George Washington University, State University School of Law at Buffalo, Vermont University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Iowa.

Suarez said he also received a cautionary letter from the American Bar Association.

“I got a warning from the ABA. They were concerned my efforts would result in raiding Puerto Rican law schools and that could hurt them,” Suarez said.

“I wrote back and said, ‘I understand your institutional concern. My concern is what is happening with those students. They can’t go home. They can’t go to school. They can’t even take a bath.’”

Meanwhile, Suarez said, on September 27, the law dean at the University of Puerto Rico sent him an email saying 33 law students are ready to come to Florida. That number grew to 51 law students by October 2.

Suarez elaborated: “The living conditions of the students across the island are currently below the adequate standards for education. Without the ability to promptly restore electricity or water, there is great uncertainty in Puerto Rico as to when the highways, byways, and school premises will be back to their normal functioning capacity.

“In addition, many students have lost their homes and belongings and have been literally plunged into poverty overnight.”

Suarez said he has not yet been able to contact anyone at Interamerican University School of Law or the Pontifical Catholic University of Ponce’s School of Law.

“However, we are hopeful that this will be possible very soon. The process of student transfer must be coordinated between the deans of each Puerto Rico law school and the accepting law school, in order to ensure ABA compliance,” Suarez said.

“Students are encouraged to continue to try to contact their deans until they are successful,” he said.

“The process has not been easy, as the ABA has very strict rules governing transfers of students in the middle of the year.”

Suarez plans to address The Florida Bar Board of Governors meeting in Orlando on October 6, after this News went to press, to further explain his project.

It’s a mammoth work in progress full of logistical challenges.

“It’s not just getting them in school. It’s flying them over here, buying books, finding them places to live, and helping them adapt to the cultural change. They need to get to know people,” Suarez said.

“We are asking the legal community to step up and assist this group of students who will require much more than just financial support; they will need our cultural and moral support.”

He has set up a Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida’s scholarship fund.

Called the Student Temporary Assistance and Relocation (S.T.A.R.) Program, it is described as “filling some of the gaps that other organizations or charities may not be able to fill.”

Donations raised will help students who decide to relocate to the mainland, as well as students who decide to stay in Puerto Rico. For more information on how to donate, contact [email protected]. The PR Bar of Florida will host a fundraiser for its S.T.A.R program October 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Blue Martini – Mary Brickell Village at 900 South Miami Avenue in Miami.

The University of Puerto Rico has also established an emergency fund for law students and faculty. Contact Dean Vivian Neptune at [email protected] for more information.

[Revised: 02-20-2018]