Published November 27, 2018
Against the backdrop of a contentious national debate over immigration policy and widespread protest over the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrants seeking to cross into the United States from Mexico, a handful of UB law students are poised to provide hands-on help to asylum seekers.
The six students are part of Assistant Clinical Professor Nicole Hallett’s “U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic” course that will be held in January. For seven days, the student clinicians will be in Dilley, Texas, site of the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention center in the country. The for-profit institute, with a capacity of 2,400 persons, is contracted by the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house women and children.
Working with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, the students will work under a practice order to advance the cases of detainees — many from violence-plagued Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Hallett, an immigration law specialist who also directs the School of Law’s Community Justice Clinic, says the idea for the January clinic developed over the summer. In response to the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy, she says, students were looking for a way to help.
Many applied, and six second- and third-year students were chosen. They’ll fly to San Antonio, Texas, along with Hallett, two Spanish-language translators, and a UB social work student.
The CARA Project, Hallett says, “relies on volunteers to provide most of their legal representation. We’ll visit the detention center, do a training on Sunday night, and then on Monday morning the students will be working with asylum seekers, preparing them for asylum interviews or representing them in immigration court so they can be released on bond.
“It’s unlikely that the students will see a single case from beginning to end,” she says, “but we’ll see a lot of cases at one step in the process. They’ll get cases that other law students and lawyers will have begun to prepare.” Client meetings will take place in a trailer on the detention center property set up for that purpose.
“There’s a lot going on in this facility,” Hallett says, “and that requires the volunteers to be very nimble and flexible in terms of what they have to do.”
One student in the clinic group, Leighann Ramirez, is a JD/MSW dual degree candidate who has already done significant work in immigration and asylum law, including currently serving in a social work clinic at the federal detention center in Batavia.
Ramirez aspires to become an immigration attorney. She says that, after having read so much about it, she’s looking forward to seeing the situation in Texas. “Ever since the family separations, there are so many families in need, so much miscommunication,” she says. “There are a lot of illegal things going on down there, and conditions aren’t good at all. I really want to see that firsthand.”
She also expects her fluency in Spanish will help her connect with these women and children, and she knows they are at risk of being re-traumatized by the asylum process. “If I can offer some decent human interaction with them that maybe they are not getting, that, for me, would be huge,” she says. “I’d just like to make it as seamless as possible for them.”
The students are covering their own travel costs, but participation in the clinic by members of the UB community is invited. Visit the clinic’s fundraising page to donate toward a funding goal of $15,000 — as Hallett says, “a good opportunity to do a little bit to support the important work of helping asylum seekers.”