The situation in the family immigration detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border may be changing quickly following a federal court order, but the underlying issues inspiring some University of Wisconsin Law School students to volunteer to help the people being held there are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
It’s about human rights, say the students in the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. “It’s a matter of navigating a complex bureaucratic system to help people who have often surmounted incredible struggles in their lives. It’s a very humanitarian focus,” said student Molly Cohen.
The plight of the recent Central American arrivals, many of whom are fleeing gang or domestic violence, can be especially compelling. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, for example, has the highest homicide rate in the world and is torn by drug and gang violence, Cohen said.
“This is a human rights crisis; these are desperate women and children who are fleeing unspeakable violence from organized crime and drug cartels. That’s something that is not widely known in the United States,” Cohen said.
Family immigration detention centers – expanded by the Obama administration after a surge of illegal immigration, mostly from Central America, last summer – have been under scrutiny by human rights activists. An estimated 1,700 parents and children are being held at three facilities, one in Pennsylvania and two in Texas, run by private companies contracting with Immigration and Custom Enforcement.
A federal judge on July 25 declared conditions in the Texas centers “deplorable” and said the detentions violated law on the treatment of migrant children. Federal authorities in the Department of Homeland Security were given until Aug. 3 to show the court why the detainees should not be released.
So, what will happen to the parents and children held in the Texas family detention centers is not yet clear, said Stacy Taeuber, a clinical assistant professor who directs the immigration law clinic. The clinic, like others conducted by the law school’s Economic Justice Institute, provides students with practical experience and helps bring legal services to low-income, underrepresented clients.
There is a strong continuing demand for lawyers with expertise in immigration law and most graduates of the clinic are working as immigration attorneys, Taeuber said. Most jobs are with nonprofit organizations representing immigrants; a few are as corporate immigration attorneys, who help employees in high-demand fields get visas to come and work in the United States.
The law clinic students are trying to raise $6,000 to go to Dilley, Texas, before the new school year begins to respond to the human rights crisis by helping represent the immigration detainees. Anyone who wants to donate toward trip expenses can go to the Immigrant Justice Clinic web site, click “Making a Donation,” and indicate "Texas trip" in the comment box.
As students, they likely would assist attorneys by taking down detainees’ stories in preparation for motions to secure a reasonable bond for release and to begin the process to petition for asylum to stay in the United States.
Some of the issues faced by the new arrivals being held in Texas are similar to those of others who enter the country illegally. And the clinic students regularly visit the Dodge County Jail, where undocumented immigrants arrested in southern Wisconsin are held.
Research has shown that immigrants’ success in immigration court improves dramatically when they have legal representation, Taeuber said. But unlike in criminal court, indigent clients in immigration court have no right to free counsel.
Many immigrants -- not only those in the Texas centers -- are fleeing extreme situations, Cohen said. “You don’t abandon your whole life and culture if there are not compelling difficult circumstances,” she said. “That’s something people lose sight of the immigration debate.”
Some of the students came to the Immigrant Justice Clinic informed on the issues from their past work experiences.
Student Amanda Postel said she learned how disruptive anxiety about immigration status can while working in an English language learner program with the Madison School District. “I saw families’ uncertainties about whether they can stay and their children can grow up here,” she said.
Recent law school graduate Jared Prado, a Madison police officer, has volunteered with Amigo en Azul, a police program that seeks to build ties to the local Latino community. “People are more likely to call 911 when we show up at the community events, when we’ve coached their kids, when we’ve visited their schools.” And many of the barriers Latinos face have to do with their immigrations status, he learned. And through the Immigrant Justice Clinic, he’s found out that immigration law can be used to assist people get on a pathway to citizenship, he said.
Prado was part of a group from Madison that visited a family detention center in Texas over spring break. While interviewing detainees before they met with lawyers, Prado said he heard stories of inadequate food, overcrowding, and unmet health care needs.
“This is what our government has done to women and children seeking refuge in our country that we talk about as the epitome of safety and liberty. We’re simply not adequately providing that,” Prado said.
Students spoke eagerly of the ethical underpinnings of their work.
Postel said that while students may become insulated from the real world while at college, “I feel impassioned to make a contribution.” The law school’s motto “Law in action,” along with its highly rated clinics, provides a foundation from which to seek ways to work for social justice as a law student, she said.
“I would feel terrible if in the time I was studying law this issue arose and I was too busy or too distracted to do anything,” Postel said.
The controversy over the operation of the family detention centers is just the latest indicator of the need for comprehensive reform of immigration law, an issue some observers say could rise to the top of the list in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But given the controversy fired up by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s remarks characterizing Mexican immigrants as criminals, Postel for one is concerned that intense attention to the issue in the campaign might backfire.
“I’m afraid it could actually become worse …I don’t know if it’s time yet to make political inroads nationally,” she said.
Fear is a powerful way to muddy the issue; it’s nothing new, Cohen said.
But despite the distractions of complicated laws and overheated politics swirling around immigration, the issue is really very simple, she said: “It is people who want the right to a dignified life and want to protect their children.”