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New England Law launches program to help asylum seekers from Central America

Immigrant Detention Justice Project allows students to hone their immigration law skills

Nov. 18, 2015: Central American women and children fleeing danger in their home nations face countless obstacles in their quest for asylum in the United States. New England Law | Boston students are contributing their skills to help these immigrants surmount crucial legal hurdles.

The Center for Law and Social Responsibility’s (CLSR) new Immigrant Detention Justice Project was launched by Professor Dina Francesca Haynes and students from the Immigration Law Association to help asylum seekers in a remote Texas detention facility present their cases to an immigration judge in Miami. “The initiative combines old-fashioned lawyering with 21st century technology,” said Professor David M. Siegel, CLSR director.

 (L-R) Alexandra Law ’17, Jenny Sommer ’16, Marco Jimenez Jr. '17, Medya Aghaansari ’17, Stephanie Mealey ’16, Professor Haynes
Alexandra Law ’17, Jenny Sommer, Graduate, Marco Jimenez Jr. ’17, Medya Aghaansari ’17, Stephanie Mealey, Graduate, and Professor Haynes

Participation in a national, volunteer network

Most of the asylum seekers come from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras and cannot afford legal assistance. New England Law is part of a national network of volunteer lawyers and law students giving those fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse, and other dangers a chance for safety and security in the United States.

Before they can be released and attempt to file for asylum, women and often very young children must pass an interview with an asylum officer who assesses their credible fear of persecution in their home country. A handful of volunteer attorneys interview immigrants daily at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Then Professor Haynes and the project’s administrative assistants, Medya Aghaansari ’17 and Jenny Sommer, Graduate, organize the information from the interviews and update a detainee database overnight.

“Medya and Jenny are doing a remarkable job under pressure, with high stakes,” said Professor Haynes.

“I am very much interested in practicing both immigration and criminal law or ‘Crimmigration.’ This work is highly relevant to my career path and I am honored to be part of it,” said Aghaansari. “This experience has taught me a lot about the law because we are dealing with drafting legal briefs in a very short period of time, and it also has taught me a lot about government and politics.”

“It is incredibly rewarding,” echoed Sommers.

Under Professor Haynes’s supervision, Aghaansari and Sommers coordinate other volunteers across the nation to write briefs in support of the asylum seekers. The authors include Marco Jimenez Jr. ’17, Alexandra Law ’17, Stephanie Mealey, Graduate, students from Columbia and Yale Law Schools, and Haynes, Aghaansari, and Sommers. All provide individual arguments as to why each of the women and children should be entitled to remain in the United States to pursue their asylum claims.

“It’s about helping vulnerable people”

“This one detention facility, paid for by the federal government and run by a private prison contractor, holds 2,400 people,” said Professor Haynes. “All are young children and their mothers, many with minimal education and some of whom speak only indigenous languages. Most have been traumatized by harrowing experiences in their home country, compounded by the journey north. The need is overwhelming and everyone working on this project is making a difference for people who faced life-threatening danger in the places they left.”

“It's about helping vulnerable people who need someone to advocate for them,” said Stephanie Mealey. “Many of them have suffered horrible abuses and loss and have nowhere else to turn, and we want to prevent them from being turned away.”

Many of these individuals have a valid claim to asylum, but without representation their chances of establishing a “credible fear” for their safety if they remain at home are extremely low, notes Alexandra Law. “This initiative is important because there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings,” she notes. “Without the efforts of the pro bono attorneys and volunteers, working both on the ground and remotely, these families would likely be deported to the countries that they fled.”

Both Law and Mealey plan on pursuing careers in immigration law. “I value this chance to get a head start on advocating for immigrants,” said Mealey.

The project is part of the Human Rights and Immigration Law Project, also directed by Professor Haynes. Interested students willing to commit the necessary time and energy, especially those with asylum experience, are welcome to apply to join the project and should e-mail Professor Haynes at dhaynes@nesl.edu.