Law On The Border
Lewis & Clark law students help asylum seekers make their case at the U.S.-Mexico border.
At 7:30 a.m. on the first Monday of spring break, second-year law student Iram Riaz found herself in a windowless office in the Texas desert, sitting next to a woman whom she had met only a half hour before.
Rosa (not her real name) had recently fled Mexico seeking refuge from death threats against her family from organized gangs. Across from them sat a U.S. asylum officer, who would decide whether to deport Rosa or grant her a temporary reprieve.
Riaz, a native of Greensboro, N.C., was tasked with making sure Rosa included the facts about her story that most aligned with the government’s “credible fear” standard. Under U.S. law, a person who demonstrates that they have a credible fear of returning to their home country cannot be deported from the United States until that person’s asylum case is heard by a judge.
Riaz relied on notes from the previous week’s volunteers, who had interviewed Rosa and highlighted for her which aspects of her story were most relevant to U.S. asylum law. After a Spanish-English interpreter joined by phone, the asylum officer questioned Rosa sternly yet politely for 75 minutes. After the officer’s final question, Riaz got a chance to speak.
“When I gave my closing statement, I just kind of nailed it down,” she recalls. “I had a good feeling when I left. My client did, too.”
Over the last two years, 31 Lewis & Clark Law School students have spent at least a week at the 50-acre immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. They’ve been part of a nearly all-volunteer effort to provide legal representation to the asylum-seekers housed there, mostly Central American women and their children.
Since many asylum seekers face persecution or physical harm in their home countries, winning their cases can be a life-or-death matter. Law students don’t usually participate in such high-stakes cases.Juliet StumpfRobert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics
Their work falls under the auspices of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. The effort, started in 2015, is spearheaded by four immigrant-aid groups referred to collectively as CARA: the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. CARA acted in response to what they say was a U.S. government strategy to lock up and deport a wave of migrants from Central America, regardless of the merits of their asylum claims.
At the detention center, law students are allowed to perform all the same duties as practicing attorneys except represent a detainee before an immigration judge. (Judges appear via videoconference to review credible-fear and bond decisions.) Students interview women at the facility; build a case for asylum; and prepare and accompany women to their credible-fear hearings.
Since many asylum seekers face persecution or physical harm in their home countries, winning their cases can be a life- or-death matter. Law students don’t usually participate in such high-stakes cases, says Juliet Stumpf, Robert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics, who has helped mobilize support for the students’ trips.
“Not all of them have traveled to Dilley with an interest in immigration, but they all went with a passion for using their legal skills to benefit people,” she says. “Not only have they gained valuable experience, but they have also acquired an understanding of how their skills can actually change somebody’s life.”
Origins of Student Involvement
The trips to Dilley began as a 2015 spring break option organized as part of an immigration seminar cotaught by Stumpf and Stephen Manning JD ’01, a noted Portland immigration attorney and adjunct professor of law.
Manning had previously helped recruit and organize pro bono lawyers to represent detainees at the Artesia, New Mexico, detention facility in 2014. Lawyers there won all but one of the 15 asylum cases they argued before immigration judges. When the government closed the New Mexico facility—and opened a larger one in Dilley to accommodate 2,400 migrants—volunteer efforts shifted there.
Rodrigo Juarez JD ’16 was one of three students who accom-panied Manning and four Chicago-based lawyers on the trip in 2015. He encountered a sprawling, colorless expanse on the South Texas plains, covered in gravel and dotted with trailers.
“I had no idea that detention centers were even here. It was kind of a bizarre coming home for me,” says Juarez, who grew up in nearby Brownsville. “At that point, the pro bono project was only a few weeks old. Every day involved working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the center, then going back to the hotel and working into the night tracking down documents and family members or reviewing cases. It was a really intense experience.”
Juarez says the facility’s prison-like atmosphere further victimized women and children who had fled traumatic conditions at home. “You’d see armed guards escorting 5-year-old children around,” he says. “All of us had to pinch ourselves: ‘Is this really happening in America?’”
When they returned to Lewis & Clark, Juarez and another student, Juliann Peebles JD ’16, started the Immigration Student Group to organize future volunteers and secure funding. (Juarez had paid his own airfare to Dilley with money raised from selling homemade tamales on campus.) They began raising money from the law school community and the National Lawyers Guild to offset travel expenses for future trips.
Cecilia Anguiano, a second-year law student from Racine, Wisconsin, was part of a third group that traveled to Dilley in summer 2016. Her experience included interviewing a woman who had fled Mexico after being extorted and threatened with death by the infamous La Familia cartel. “You hear about the most personal traumatic and tragic events,” says Anguiano. “Helping the person in front of me tell their story is really a powerful experience. When I’m back in the classroom, it’s those experiences that help me stay focused on why I’m going to law school and who I want to help.”
“It’s been the most valuable experience I’ve had in law school,” says Tessa Copeland, a third-year law student who worked with a handful of Romanian women seeking asylum during two of her three trips to Dilley. “It makes you realize you have more to give than you thought.”
Anguiano and Copeland are now president and volunteer director, respectively, of the Immigration Student Group, which has grown to 50 members. It takes the lead on organizing trips to Dilley and hosts lectures and panel discussions on immigration topics. One recent event about the implications of a U.S.-Mexico border wall drew not only students interested in immigration law, but also those studying environmental law, Native American law, and animal law. “We’re trying to give students more exposure to practicing immigration law and how that area is going to intersect with whatever field they go into,” Anguiano explains.
In the last 18 months, an immigration reading group has formed, a lunchtime talk by a former CARA staff member drew a standing-room-only crowd to Wood Hall, and Stumpf’s immigration law survey course had a waiting list after filling to its 48-student capacity.
“Our immigration curriculum can only expand, because the work is getting more intense—there’s more and more of it,” says Stumpf. “It’s something that’s happening on a national level, and it’s resonating with more students, partly because they see the connection it has to broader civil rights.”
A Measurable Impact
Stumpf says students who go to Dilley return daunted by the government’s formidable exercise of power, but buoyed by the confidence that they’ve done meaningful work. “Everything they did contributed not just to the success of an individual mother and child, but to this larger story of how Central American families are fleeing violence and persecution,” says Stumpf.
Constructing and promoting that narrative, Manning points out, not only helps advance all asylum claims, but also affects how Americans see their plight.
“This experience really helps students understand how narrative drives policy, which drives law,” says Manning. “That is to say, if we saw these women as people seeking asylum in a humanitarian crisis, we wouldn’t detain them with the intent of deporting them.”
Data from the CARA project demonstrates the difference students have made: detainees in Dilley who have legal counsel are 10 times more likely to succeed in their cases. The students’ work also supported a suit filed by the ACLU that forced changes in government detention practices. More than a dozen students continue to work remotely for the project, organizing data for an upcoming legal challenge and updating the project’s client database.
“The early participation of the Lewis & Clark students was integral to building the crowd-sourced volunteer model,” says Ian Philabaum, who coordinated the Dilley project during its first year for CARA. “The fact that they continue to participate has helped sustain the project, and they have become trusted colleagues of the Dilley project staff.”
Students say their experience in Dilley has influenced, if not cemented, their decision to go into immigration law after graduation. Juarez now works full time for an American Bar Association program that provides legal orientation for detained immigrants in Texas. Peebles is an attorney advisor in the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigrant Review. Copeland says that after she takes the Oregon bar exam in July, “I’ll go wherever the movement takes me.” Anguiano, who plans a fourth trip to Dilley this summer, hopes to find a position in immigration or employment law.
Riaz, whose initial legal interest was in victims’ rights, says she’s now considering a career that would allow her to help people applying for asylum or trying to navigate the byzantine immigration system.
Shortly after she returned from spring break, she learned that all the women she had worked with—including Rosa, the one whom she had accompanied to the credible-fear interview—had received positive results. In fact, all but one of the women represented by the nine students that week had passed their credible-fear interviews. Each of them now has one year to file a formal asylum request to have their case heard before a judge.
“Before the trip, I was passionate about what I wanted to do, but I hadn’t figured out the how, the where, or the what,” says Riaz. “But now I have a concrete example of work I’d enjoy doing after graduation.”
Riaz would like to go back to Dilley at least once more before graduating, but would rather see the government end what many call its unjust detention policies. “All of us left the detention center saying, ‘Yes, it would be great to go back to Dilley.’ But ideally, we won’t have to.”
Dan Sadowsky is a video producer and editor based in Portland.
Professor Juliet Stumpf: A Focus on Immigration
Juliet Stumpf hadn’t yet settled on a career path when she ventured to Ecuador during spring semester of her junior year at Oberlin College. While there, she did a month-long independent research project for a local human rights organization that consisted of interviewing teenagers who had been tortured by the secret police.
The experience troubled and motivated her. “What do you do when going to authorities doesn’t help because they’re the ones violating your rights?” she asked herself. “The only answer I could see was the law.”
Today, Stumpf is in her 11th year at Lewis & Clark, where she teaches the popular Immigration Law survey course and, with adjunct professor Stephen Manning, the Transformative Immigration Law seminar. “The seminar is about understanding the shape of the current law; having a vision for what the law should be; and all of the steps and factors that go into making that transformation.”
Manning says Stumpf has played an integral behind-the-scenes role in helping maximize the value that law students receive from their volunteer experiences in Dilley. “A lot of times lawyers think, ‘Let’s just toss a bunch of law students on this,’ without thinking through how to approach the topic, how to study the topic, and how to make it meaningful to students,” says Manning. “Juliet has given a lot of thought to how students can be meaningfully involved, and that’s included empowering them to run their own program.”
Although Stumpf has always had an interest in human rights law and immigration law, she has worked a variety of roles in private practice, government, and academia. In fact, she was hired by Lewis & Clark in 2005 to teach not immigration law, but civil procedure and employment discrimination law.
“At the time I was told, ‘None of us are experts in immigration law, so if you want to teach it, go ahead,’” recalls Stumpf. “Little did they know the topic was going to explode a few years later.”
Stumpf has published widely on “crimmigration law,” which she describes as a 30-year trend of intertwining criminal and immigration law, such as using convictions as grounds to deport lawful permanent residents or prosecuting those marrying a foreigner only to give them a route to permanent residency. She’s also interested in the forces that shape changes in our immigration laws—something she’d like to pursue through creating an immigration policy center on campus. She envisions it as an opportunity for students to think more broadly about immigration law and its implications.
“I want students to not just do the work of representing clients— like they’re doing with the Dilley project—but to have a vision for how the law moves forward.”