Law Students, Alums on Frontlines of Aiding Asylum Seekers
Minnesota Law students and alumni have been on the frontlines of protecting the rights of asylum seekers in a challenging political climate.
While a number of legal actions have been brought against various aspects of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy, some of the most poignant stories have come from asylum seekers. Some are locked in jail-like detention facilities under harsh physical conditions; some are trapped at the border waiting endlessly for a chance for a hearing; and some have already been returned to the lands that they fled without a ever having had a hearing.
The following are four of the many stories of Minnesota Law students and alumni pitching in to assist them and to change the policies preventing their claims from being heard.
- 3L Paul Dimick: Gone to Guatemala
- 1L Camila Pacheco-Fores: Trapped in Tijuana
- Anne Dutton ’16: Helping the Children
- Rebecca Cassler ’16: At the Center of Immigration Litigation
Last December, when most of his fellow law students were locked in the library studying for final exams, 3L Paul Dimick was on a plane bound for Guatemala.
Dimick’s odyssey began a few weeks earlier when Ben Casper Sanchez ’97, faculty director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, received an urgent plea from Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit legal services group. Facing an imminent deadline in the class-action litigation, the group desperately needed someone on the ground in Guatemala to gather declarations from parents who had been removed from the United States and whose children remained in U.S. detention centers. Casper Sanchez passed the request along to Dimick, a student attorney in the Binger Center’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic who, prior to law school, had served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.
On Dec. 5, Dimick embarked on a 10-day-long trip to Guatemala. Just six days earlier, he had argued a key immigration issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. (See “Students Argue, Win Immigration Appeal before Sixth Circuit.”) After the long flight to Guatemala City, he caught another flight to a regional airport, followed by a two-hour car trip to meet with a waiting group of parents.
Dimick’s combined knowledge of the law and the local language (K’iche’) allowed him to work through the declarations in a way that effectively brought forth the parents’ claims. Their stories were in many respects similar: U.S. immigration officials had afforded them little to no due process. In many cases, they had been convinced to sign away their procedural rights in the hopes of keeping their children from being returned to Guatemala, where criminal gang activity posed an immediate danger to them.
The declarations that Dimick helped prepare documented:
- the basis of the migrants’ asylum claims,
- how they had crossed the border and wound up in detention,
- how they were treated while detained,
- whether they had been afforded a hearing, and
- the manner of their removal back to Guatemala.
Dimick says that with the exception of the child-separation policy (discontinued last year after a public outcry), Americans remain largely unaware of the due-process violations and ill-treatment that migrants experienced at the border and while in detention. Many were asked to surrender police reports and other valuable documentation demonstrating the credible fear that they needed to establish their asylum claims. The detention center cells they were housed in were kept at such low, uncomfortable temperatures that they were referred to as “hieleras,” or iceboxes.
Dimick says his Binger Center training served him well during this experience. He had drafted declarations in a previous asylum case that he had been involved with through the center, and therefore felt confident going through the process.
“I think one of the biggest things I learned at the Binger Center was figuring what types of questions I have to ask to get the information that I need, and how to phrase those questions in a way that will allow the person to feel comfortable sharing,” he observes. “Having worked with cases in federal court made me better able to understand what the goals of the litigation were and then to tailor the declarations to further those goals as much as possible.”
While the practical experience of working on these claims was valuable, that wasn’t what Dimick found the most memorable. “It was the parents’ love of their children,” he says. “They would do anything to keep their children safe in the United States, but also want to be reunited with them. They deserve the opportunity to have their claims heard.”
Working through the Law School’s Asylum Law Project, Camila Pacheco-Fores and three other 1Ls went to Tijuana for five days in January to volunteer with Al Otro Lado, providing legal assistance and information to migrants with potential asylum claims.
Each day, the migrants would line up in the plaza by a pedestrian bridge leading to San Diego to get numbers on a list. Al Otro Lado volunteers assist the migrants in the plaza, whose numbers may or may not be called by the U.S. government that day.
“I went two days, and what struck me was the difference between the days,” Pacheco-Fores says. “On the first, there was tension in the air, but we had plenty of time to talk to people called that day (about 40). In these conversations, we tried to prepare migrants for the worst-case scenario— detention in a hielera for days, a credible fear interview (the first step in asylum) with a hostile asylum officer, potential family separation, and indefinite detention. On the second day, however, much fewer people were allowed through (less than half), and those folks were essentially corralled like animals immediately to the vans. It was much more chaotic.”
In the afternoons, Al Otro Lado provided a know-your-rights workshop and individual consultations with migrants.
“As a law student volunteer, each day I conducted several individual consultations with migrants under the supervision of the volunteer immigration attorneys,” says Pacheco-Fores. “I also went offsite to a local youth shelter two mornings to conduct intake interviews with unaccompanied minors. “Unfortunately, many of these minors felt stranded and isolated in Tijuana, unable to leave the shelter because of safety concerns and not yet able to present themselves at the border to seek asylum in the United States.”
Pacheco-Fores says she found the experience infuriating because she witnessed so many vulnerable people seeking safety and protection exposed to more potential violence and hardship for no legitimate reason. However, she also says she “took away a sense of amazement at the fortitude of people young and old who were making the journey, and the volunteers and staff who were constantly trying to find creative ways to deal with the chaos and help migrants move forward.”
Pacheco-Fores hopes to return this spring and summer to Tijuana to volunteer again.
Anne Dutton ’16 is an Equal Justice Works Emerson Fellow at the Center for Refugee and Gender Studies. She represents children in immigration courts that deny asylum at rates significantly above the national average (e.g., Atlanta and Charlotte). Her work includes litigating claims impacting children on appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the federal courts of appeals. She also provides training and technical assistance to other attorneys representing asylum seekers.
Last June, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a case handled by the CRGS (Matter of A-B-) as a vehicle to attempt to limit asylum protections for women and others fleeing persecution at the hands of nonstate actors, Dutton’s project shifted to cover A-B- response work, including representing Ms. A.B. in her case on remand before the immigration judge. (Ms. A.B. fled El Salvador to seek protection in the United States after her physically abusive ex-husband and his associates threatened her life).
In another CRGS case, Grace v. Whitaker, the D.C. District Court last December issued a decision and injunction permanently blocking portions of Matter of A-B- from being used in credible fear processes, including its general rule against domestic violence or gang violence. “Getting the decision from the court was an amazing feeling,” says Dutton. “It was such a necessary shot of optimism that these harmful policies can and will be struck down.”
Dutton also says the training that she received as a student attorney in the Binger Center has been pivotal in carrying out her immigration work.
“I went to law school to continue my career in immigrants’ rights but I wasn’t particularly interested in litigation,” she recalls. “But after I enrolled in the Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic and spent two years working on high-impact asylum cases, it completely changed my career goals. … Many of the issues that I’m working on at CGRS, including those raised in Grace, are closely related to cases I worked on as a student. … Without the Binger Center, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Rebecca Cassler ’16 is a Law Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. The IJP does impact litigation to strengthen the civil and human rights of noncitizens in the immigration enforcement system and in daily life—at work, at school, and in public places. The SPLC also runs the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, which provides direct legal services to people in immigration jails in the southeastern United States.
“Many of our SIFI clients are asylum seekers who are detained in inhumane facilities while they are in the process of applying for asylum, without access to appropriate medical and mental health care, food and basic necessities, legal help, or their families and communities,” says Cassler.
Cassler’s job has included work on Al Otro Lado v. Nielsen, the lawsuit challenging the widespread denials of access to the asylum process for people who come to ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cassler’s work connects directly with what Camila Pacheco-Fores experienced in Mexico. “The backlog of asylum seekers waiting right now in Tijuana was wholly caused by the government’s desire to restrict access to the asylum process,” Cassler says.
Cassler’s work on the Nielsen case has included gathering evidence, drafting federal court filings, and helping to decide strategy.
Cassler points to her time working at the Binger Center’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic as the foundation of her work today.
“The experiences I gained, including filing and arguing a habeas action in federal district court, preparing a defensive asylum case, and mooting Circuit Court and U.S. Supreme Court immigration appeals, were excellent preparation for my job,” she says. “The Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic also instilled in me an awareness of the traumas that asylum seekers and refugees have faced, which is essential to working with this client population.”
— By Mark A. Cohen