Law students devote spring break to immigration detainees at family residential center in Texas

CWRU law students in Dilley, TexasWhen three third-year students at Case Western Reserve University School of Law were offered an unexpected chance to use their spring break getting real-time immigration law experience where it matters most, they quickly agreed.

Harrison Blythe, JoAnna Gavigan and Madeline Jack spent the week at the recently opened South Texas Family Residential Center, in Dilley, Texas. They went to experience the plight of hundreds of women and children confined there after fleeing Mexico and Central America seeking refuge and asylum in the United States. The students learned first-hand about the tragic reality of displaced families searching for a better life but who now are detained, their futures uncertain.

The center in Dilley is the fourth such facility the Department of Homeland Security has used to increase its capacity to detain and expedite the removal of adults with children who have illegally crossed the Southwest border of the United States. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently closed a problematic family detention center in the remote New Mexico town of Artesia.

Jennifer Peyton, a Cleveland immigration lawyer, had been directly and emotionally involved as one of a dedicated group of volunteers last August, helping women and children at Artesia through their legal and personal struggles. So she was well aware of the new center in Dilley and the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

“These families have become the latest collateral damage in an immigration system that lacks sensibility, flexibility and humanity and that fails to provide fair hearings, even for those who face grave danger if they are wrongly deported,” Peyton said.

Peyton, along with other volunteer activists, began considering a trip to the Dilley facility, just as they had gone to Artesia. The Dilley facility only houses mothers and children.

Peyton came up with the idea to include law students to “provide them with a practical experience that many law students lack in law school,” she said.

The week that fit best into her schedule happened to be spring break at the university, where she is a law school alumna and an adjunct professor for the Immigration Practicum.

Peyton had already booked her flight to Texas when she proposed the opportunity to the students.

“Eleven days before I was supposed to leave, I walked into class and asked my three students their plans for spring break,” she said. “None of the three had plans for break, and, during class that evening, each one verbally committed to volunteering. The next morning, I emailed the law school deans (Michael Scharf and Jessica Berg) for permission (and financial support), and then I began to chase down other donations to help my dream team fall into place.”

Peyton said the needed funds were quickly raised through the law school and other sources to cover travel and hotel stays for the students. In all, the three students and Peyton were joined by two more attorneys and two interpreters, all from Ohio, and other volunteers in Dilley. It formed Peyton’s Ohio “dream team.”

The practical experience at the family detention center was invaluable on many levels, Blythe said.

“We (Team Ohio) were all working together in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment, where legal issues are inextricably intertwined with sometimes more pressing concerns about the well-being of mothers and their children,” he said. “In that way, we had to use each other’s skills to provide a holistic service.”

Under Peyton’s supervision, the students met with detainees and performed an initial client interview to assess legal needs. They also worked with the detainees to gather bond documents and prepare bond submissions for immigration court as a crucial step toward liberation.

Each student was able to observe court or immigration hearings known as “credible fear interviews,” where each woman discussed the often-tragic reasons why she fled her home country with her child or children. Each woman the students met is eligible for the legal protections of asylum.

This spring break got personal in a hurry for the students.

“My major takeaway has been the personal stories that the (detained) women shared with me,” Blythe said.

He said the concept gets lost on many U.S. citizens that “the United States isn’t some enchanted land where once you cross its border you automatically experience freedom and upward mobility. Every single woman and child detained in that facility is still on an incredibly long and painful journey.”

For many in the detention center, they just want to end up where they can be near family and free from sexual, domestic and gang violence and police corruption, Blythe and the others learned.

“Our experience in Dilley was frustrating, inspiring, sad, and an incredible eye-opener,” Jack said. “Putting my immigration knowledge and legal training to use to help these women and children, and then to see the result of my work, was an incredible feeling. I learned so much more about the asylum process in my week of hands-on work than I did in months in the classroom. I think this kind of experiential learning, especially if it is connected with a pro bono project, should be required for law students.”