Who We Are
Founded in 1970 to represent Texas farmworkers, TRLA has grown into the nation’s third largest legal aid provider and the largest in Texas. TRLA provides free civil legal services to residents in 68 Southwest Texas counties, and represents migrant and seasonal farm workers throughout the state and in six other southern states. TRLA also operates public defender programs that serve at least 10 Texas counties, representing low-income and indigent people accused of felonies, misdemeanors, and juvenile crimes. TRLA serves about 23,000 clients each year. However, more than 2.6 million residents of Southwest Texas are considered eligible for TRLA services, a ratio of almost 21,000 potential clients per legal aid lawyer. As a result, thousands of low-income Texans still lack access to civil legal representation.
TRLA attorneys specialize in more than 45 practice areas, including family, employment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, subsidized housing, farmworker, civil rights, and environmental law. TRLA serves its clientele through its Mercedes headquarters and branch offices throughout Southwest Texas. Its Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS) office in Nashville, Tenn., serves migrant farm workers in that state and five others: Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
TRLA is funded principally by Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that provides financial resources to legal aid organizations throughout the nation, and by Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF), which was created by the Texas Supreme Court in 1984. TRLA receives smaller grants from a variety of federal, state and local agencies, foundations, and corporations. In addition, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense funds TRLA's growing public defender program.
TRLA has developed other special programs that serve specific client populations: Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault (LASSA), funded by TAJF; the Texas Foster Youth Project, and Texas C-Bar, which provides legal services to small businesses and nonprofits.
TRLA is recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt organization and contributions are tax deductible for the donor. For more information on how you can support TRLA, click here.
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The original TRLA program – known as Texas Rural Legal Aid – was created in 1970 by the Texas Trial Lawyers Association with federal funding for nine South Texas counties. The founding father was James DeAnda, of Corpus Christi, who later became the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Texas Rural Legal Aid joined several legal aid programs established in mostly urban areas, including Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Laredo, and El Paso. All were subsequently funded through a then-new federal agency, Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which was established in 1974. Over the next few years, groups such as Texas Rural Legal Aid, Coastal Bend Legal Services, and Legal Aid of Central Texas expanded into rural counties. During that time, Bexar County Legal Aid, the El Paso Legal Aid Society, and the Laredo Legal Aid Society remained as single-county urban legal services programs. By 1980, every county in Texas provided some level of free civil legal services to low-income residents. At that time, federal funding had almost reached an early goal established by LSC – enough funding to provide one lawyer for every 5,000 eligible clients in the country.
With the advent of the Reagan administration in 1980, a period of uncertainty emerged. The administration first attempted to eliminate federal funding for legal aid services altogether, but the U.S. Congress insisted that LSC be continued. The administration next tried to destroy LSC from within by appointing a board and hiring staff who were hostile to the program's mission. Federal funding was cut by one-third, and legal aid programs were subjected to intense scrutiny.
Under the Clinton administration, financial support for LSC increased modestly, but the program never recovered to the 1980 levels of funding. A subsequent effort to eliminate LSC resulted in new restraints on programs receiving LSC funds, including reduced funding in 1996 and in restrictions on attorneys' fees, class actions, representation of prisoners, and lobbying.
However, state funding in Texas began to fill the gap, coming first in the form of financial resources from Interest-On-Lawyers-Trust-Accounts (IOLTA), a program implemented by the Texas Supreme Court in 1984. The Supreme Court established the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation to administer IOLTA funds, and the foundation later became the funding conduit for all state funding of legal aid services.
In 2002, at the direction of LSC, four legal aid programs previously serving several areas — Legal Aid of Central Texas in the Austin area; Bexar County Legal Aid Society in San Antonio; Coastal Bend Legal Services in the Corpus Christi, Laredo, and Victoria areas; and the El Paso Legal Aid Society — merged with the original Texas Rural Legal Aid program to create a new agency that doubled the size of its clientele. To reflect the merger, the organization’s name was changed to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. In the year of the merger, TRLA provided civil legal aid to more than 25,000 low-income clients, with services ranging from brief advice and counseling to extensive litigation in state and federal courts.