Published January 23, 2019
A handful of UB law students are on the front lines of the national debate over immigration policy and the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrants as they volunteer their legal expertise to immigrants seeking to cross into the United States from Mexico.
The six students are in Dilley, Texas, this week at the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest detention center in the country. They are volunteering their assistance and receiving hands-on experience to help those seeking asylum from Central American countries.
The students are part of faculty member Nicole Hallett’s U.S.–Mexico Border Clinic, one of the School of Law’s expanding clinical course offerings. Working with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, the students are working under a practice order to advance the cases of detainees — most from violence-plagued Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — who are seeking asylum in the United States. The CARA project relies on volunteers to provide most of the legal representation.
“The people crossing the border are very different than what you would typically think of as the kinds of people who were historically crossing the border,” said Hallett, assistant clinical professor and an immigration law specialist who also directs the Community Justice Clinic. “There are fewer and fewer people being caught at the border coming in for economic reasons.
“Instead, we’re seeing a rise in families crossing the border, either couples with children or mothers with children. And we’re also seeing many unaccompanied minors crossing the border,” she said. “Most of these people are coming from Central America, and they’re coming not because they’re looking for economic opportunity, but because they’re fleeing violence or threats of violence in their home countries. And it continues unabated, despite the various policy measures put into place to try to stop people from coming.”
The idea for the January clinic and trip to Texas came about last summer when students began looking for a way to help families caught in the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy.
“Last summer, when the Trump administration announced the Family Separation Policy — where families were forcibly separated, often without even being able to say goodbye, with children as young as 1 year old placed in foster care facilities and parents kept in detention — I began to get emails from law students who felt very helpless to do anything to help people affected by this policy,” Hallett told UBNow before leaving for Texas last weekend with the six second- and third-year students, two Spanish-language translators and a UB social work student.
During the first two weeks of the course at UB, students learned about immigration law and took part in simulated interviews with Spanish-speaking people assuming the roles of asylum seekers. After arriving in San Antonio, the students visited the detention center and took part in another training session on Sunday night.
On Monday morning, the students began 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,” Hallett noted, “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 take place in a trailer on the detention center property set up for that purpose.
The Buffalo law school community rallied around Hallett’s project and she was able to fundraise the costs of the students’ trips.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from lawyers in the community who also want to help,” Hallett said. “So even though Buffalo is obviously very far from the border, this is our problem, too. And this is really a good way for our community to show support for those people who have been victims in their home countries, and who are trying to come to the United States for the protection of themselves and their families.”
One student in the clinic group, Leighann Ramirez, is a JD/MSW candidate who has already done significant work in immigration and asylum law, including serving in a social work clinic at the federal detention center in Batavia.
Ramirez, 25, aspires to become an immigration attorney. After having read so much about the migration of people seeking asylum in the Texas-Mexico border, she recently told UBNow that she was looking forward to seeing the situation for herself.
“Ever since the family separations, there are so many families in need, so much miscommunication,” she said. “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.”
But what really inspired her interest is her personal history. Ramirez’s mother migrated to the U.S. through the southern border. Although she wasn’t detained, her experience traveling through Mexico was a rough one, Ramirez said.
“Growing up, I would always hear my mother talk about her story, her migration story, and I would just be in awe about how she was able to do that because I see her as my mom who’s scared of most things,” she said.
She expects her fluency in Spanish will help her connect with these women and children seeking asylum. “If I can offer some decent human interaction with them that maybe they are not getting, that, for me, would be huge,” Ramirez said. “I’d just like to make it as seamless as possible for them.”
Ramirez said it’s important to separate herself emotionally from the people she meets, but she knows the stories she has heard and reports she has read can’t help but have an impact on her personally.
“Just hearing about what happened over the summer; for example, how the women and children and their families are being separated,” said Ramirez, whose family originally came from Bolivia. “Kids were put in boxes and cages. Women and children — before they actually are put in detention — they’re in these hieleras, which are basically ice boxes.
“I’m thinking of women and children waiting in ice boxes for three to four days before they can even be placed in detention and then be put into the process. That alone already just gets me upset, as a human being, because I’m thinking about myself in that setting. Especially, I think because I have such a personal connection with my mom,” she said.
“To think she would have to be further detained in an ice box for three or four days, and then maybe — God forbid — she might have had my sister and I with her. Or we’d be separated from her, or even people would try to deport her without giving her an actual interview.”
For Hallett, the U.S.–Mexico Border Clinic is an extension of her work in the law school’s Community Justice Clinic, where students learn how to practice law both inside and outside the classroom, as well as represent real clients. She said she’s passionate about representing low-wage and low-income immigrants in the U.S., and teaching law students how to represent them.
She traveled to the South Texas Family Residential Center in 2016 with students from another university, calling it one of the most “formative experiences” of her professional life.
“And I say that as someone who has been an immigration attorney for over 10 years,” she said.
“You are working with people who have just crossed the border days earlier, and you’re in a detention center where they’re being held with their children. They are under a lot of stress. And many of them have experienced trauma — not only in their home country, but also on the journey.
“It’s impossible to leave after a week at the border without understanding how crucial it is that we have an asylum system that works in this country, and that allows people to get the protection that they need,” she said. “It’s impossible to talk to these women and children without feeling a moral obligation to help them. But it’s also impossible not to feel affected yourself because you’re hearing these stories. You’re hearing story after story. And it can become very emotional for the volunteers themselves.”
Hallett called that week in 2016 at the border facility one of the hardest weeks of her life. “It was also one of the most rewarding weeks of my life,” she said. “And I’m really excited to share that experience with students here at UB.”
She noted there are many misconceptions about the people who are crossing the border.
“There have been statements made that there are terrorists crossing the border, that they’re all criminals crossing the border,” she said. “In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The people that I met were not terrorists. They were not criminals. And they were just simply trying to protect their families.”
Hallett said U.S. authorities have done a good job of protecting the country’s southern border.
“The numbers of migrants crossing for economic reasons have fallen year after year since the year 2000,” she said. “I think when we’re thinking about what sorts of policies we want to put into place, we should continue doing what we’re doing at the border.
“But we also have to make sure that we consider the humanitarian objectives of the asylum system, which is the law,” she added. “People should be able to seek asylum. It’s international law; it’s U.S. law. And we shouldn’t be putting policies into place that prevent people from doing that.
“I think there is a way of protecting the border, protecting ourselves, protecting our national interests, and also making sure that we comply with our legal obligations. And also that we act morally and ethically in the larger world.”