Attorney Kim Hunter's pro bono work took her all the way across the country — six times in as many months.

Hunter is one of four Twin Cities immigration lawyers recognized by the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center for representing Central American families detained after crossing the southern border without papers.

The center named Hunter, Paula Duthoy, Michelle Rivero and Kara Lynum National Advocates of the Year for their work helping asylum seekers at a now-closed detention facility in remote Artesia, N.M. Hunter describes that work as a "stone-cold bummer," yet her most rewarding professional experience to date.

"I felt for once in my life having a law degree was genuinely helpful," she said.

Last summer, the Obama administration resurrected a policy of detaining people crossing the border with children after a surge in arrivals primarily from Central America — a 360 percent increase in families apprehended last fiscal year over 2013. The administration has credited that move with a marked drop in new arrival numbers.

Advocates challenged the policy in court, with a judicial order expected this month. They say many of the women are fleeing violent relationships and have strong asylum cases.

Hunter made three trips to Artesia and another three to a new detention center in Dilley, Texas. There, she helped get asylum for a 19-year-old mother from Guatemala fleeing an abusive relationship.

John Keller, the Immigrant Law Center's director, says the attorneys' dedication to helping women with no other access to legal aid merited this year's award. They often traveled to New Mexico on their own dime.

Although conditions in Dilley are better than those in the makeshift Artesia facility, Hunter says, "I remain cautiously optimistic we'll dismantle this ill-conceived system, and my efforts will not be necessary."

Mila Koumpilova 612-673-4781