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Spring 2018 Service-Learning Trip Report

Thursday, March 15, 2018   (0 Comments)
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Daniel Munoz, Keli Cochran, Heather Kryzak, Sesia Cruz, and Alex Maldonado outside the detention center
Daniel Munoz, Keli Cochran, Heather Kryzak, Sesia Cruz, and Alex Maldonado, outside the detention center.

Twelve UDC Law students journeyed to rural Pennsylvania during spring break this year to provide much-needed legal services to the immigrant families confined at the Berks County Family Detention Center. Up to 96 asylum seekers are held at the remote Berks County detention center at any given time while awaiting an interview and hearing on their claim for asylum.

Professor Lindsay M. Harris, Co-Director of the Immigration & Human Rights Clinic, led the UDC Law contingent, along with attorney Alicia Vanessa Altamirano, ‘13, and Dean Shelley Broderick. The team was hosted by the Pennsylvania-based ALDEA People’s Justice Center, which provides legal and other services to families at the Berks detention center. Founded in 2015 to fight family detention, the organization chose aldea, meaning hamlet or village in Spanish, to signify a village in which a community cares for its own.

Students prepared for the trip with an intensive, nine-week course on asylum law and policy and lawyering skills such as interviewing, declaration drafting, and client counseling with trauma survivors and foreign language speakers. Students observed and participated in telephonic live-client interviews with families detained at Berks to develop the skills necessary to counsel these vulnerable families.

In addition, students participated in simulated immigration hearings where each student had a chance to argue on behalf of a detained family, presided over by retired U.S. Immigration Court Judge Paul W. Schmidt who volunteered his time. Students also sought to understand the experiences of the families they would encounter at the Berks detention facility, reading Lauren Markham’s “The Faraway Brothers” and watching the film Sin Nombre to familiarize themselves with the long journey of Central American immigrants who seek protection in the United States.

Within the detention center, students conducted new client intakes and counseled families, through patient interviewing, for telephonic “credible and reasonable fear” interviews with the asylum officers located in Newark—a threshold interview to determine whether an asylum-seeking family will be released from detention to pursue their claim for asylum protection. Students also worked with families to understand their time in federal custody, documenting horrific conditions inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention centers on the border, as well as woefully inadequate language access for non-English and particularly indigenous language speakers. The hard work of UDC Law students produced at least 19 advocacy declarations to be used by the families to support the families’ claims.

With the support of this preparation, students accompanied their respective clients to the interviews and delivered closing statements in support. Afterwards students conducted release charlas (chats or orientations) to debrief the detained families and prepare them for next steps in the asylum process upon release from detention. To better assist detained families seeking low- or pro bono representation at their final destination, and to ease the difficult task of navigating the complicated and backlogged U.S.. Immigration Court system, students painstakingly completed the 12-page application for asylum for families to take with them on their release and researched prospective attorney representatives in the areas where families would reunify with family in the U.S., in places as far afield as Kentucky, Los Angeles, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida.

Upon arrival at the detention facility early Monday morning students immediately got to work, serving no less than 26 families the first day. Eight students fluent in Spanish and two of whom spoke both Spanish and Portuguese contributed their skills as interviewers and interpreters, working with families largely from Guatemala, Honduras, and Brazil. Many of the Guatemalan families spoke indigenous dialects such as K’iche, Q’Eqchi, Mam, Popti, Poqom, and Q’anjobal, and struggled to communicate in Spanish as a second language. Students made use of technology to Skype with remote interpreters in Guatemala who interpreted from Spanish to the indigenous language where necessary.

All of this was accomplished by students while working in a crowded and noisy gymnasium, accompanied by the laughing, playing, and at times crying infants and toddlers of the families seeking protection.

By Wednesday of the Spring Break service-learning week, students were in the swing of things and working collaboratively and efficiently with one another and the detained families. Because on that day, a Nor’easter storm was predicted and heavy snow started falling, some of the team went with Professor Harris to work as efficiently as possible before the storm settled in within the detention center, while a team of three remained with Dean Shelley Broderick in the hotel making calls to previously released families to ensure they knew about their court dates and had found a lawyer.

One particularly powerful story of student lawyering saving lives is witnessed in the experience of Alex Maldonado, ’18, who worked exclusively with a family from Brazil throughout the week. The client father had fled with his 14 year-old son after receiving death threats from a powerful money lender in Brazil after he was unable to pay back his loans. Without representation before the asylum officer and again before the U.S. Immigration Judge, the client family was scheduled to be deported and slated to be on a plane to Brazil that Thursday night. With the countdown to deportation ticking away, Alex furiously worked to prepare a detailed declaration on behalf of the 14-year-old son to flesh out the anticipated harm to the family and articulate the legal grounds for the family’s claim to asylum, even interviewing the client mother, via Skype, who was still in Brazil. The ALDEA People’s Justice Center used this key evidence to submit a request for reconsideration to the asylum office, which was granted at the eleventh hour. Rather than being on a plane Friday night to face the violence that surely awaited him, the father and son were released to safety that same day.

Students left the detention center strengthened by new skills, armed with knowledge, and eager to return to D.C. to engage in immigration advocacy on behalf of the families at Berks and beyond.

UDC Law students, Professor Harris and her daughter, and Dean Shelley Broderick
Above, UDC Law students, Professor Harris and her daughter, and Dean Shelley Broderick, prepare for the drive to Pennsylvania.

Prof. Harris and UDC Law students
Prof. Harris leads the UDC Law team debriefing after work on behalf of detained immigrants.


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