Law Students

Law students plan to spend spring break representing immigrant families pro bono

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Immigration Law

Law students at Southern Methodist University aren’t going far from the school’s Dallas campus this spring break. In fact, their destination is about five hours away: The Karnes City Family Detention Center, southeast of San Antonio.

According to an SMU press release, a team of eight law students led by Natalie Nanasi, a professor and immigration law expert, will go to Karnes City next week to help immigrant women detained with their children apply for asylum in the United States.

The students will work with the detained women to determine who has a viable asylum claim and prepare them for the asylum process. The women must first pass a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If they pass, they will go to immigration court for a full hearing on their claims.

Nanasi told the law school that the majority of the detainees are from Central American countries with high rates of violence; some also are fleeing domestic violence.

“As dangerous as the trip to the United States is, that risk is still better than the certainty of what will happen to them if they stay where they are,” Nanasi said.

According to an October 2015 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, 85 percent of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan women interviewed by the U.N. fled neighborhoods controlled by armed street gangs. Sixty-four percent said they left their homes because they’d been directly threatened; 60 percent said they reported physical or sexual assault or threats to the police but got no response. Many described barricading themselves and their children inside and routinely seeing dead bodies around their neighborhoods.

Those detainees who pass their credible fear interviews might have a lengthy wait for their court cases because of a substantial backlog in the immigration courts, as noted yesterday. Nanasi and her students also will argue for the women and children to be released from detention on bond pending their hearings. If released, they will have to find their own attorneys to represent them in immigration court, since appointed counsel is not provided in immigration court.

The law students will make video blog posts at the end of every day, documenting their work and experiences. The school plans to post these videos on its YouTube channel.

“The students are going to see how important lawyers are in ensuring justice,” Nanasi said. “They will learn how to be a lawyer in a cross-cultural way; they will learn how to present evidence before an adjudicator; they will learn empathy; and they will learn how to work hard for an important cause. I have high hopes and expectations.”

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