Immigration Pro Bono Work Shows Students Hard Reality

April 21, 2008

Second-year law student Rebecca Vallas was unprepared for her first visit to an immigrant detention center.

Rebecca Vallas visited the Piedmont Regional Jail as part of the Immigrant Jail Outreach Project.

"The rooms in which the detainees were being kept were essentially huge warehouses stacked to the ceiling with more than 100 beds and rows of tables for eating," she said. "Each room had one water fountain and just a few shower stalls. The whole place smelled terribly and an unmistakable sentiment of hopelessness pervaded the facility."

With more than 37 million foreign-born people now living in the United States, immigration law is a growing field. Several pro bono programs at the Law School, ranging from asylum representation to outreach to agricultural workers, offer students like Vallas the chance to help immigrants whose legal rights are the most vulnerable.

Vallas said she was excited about getting hands-on experience working with the Immigrant Jail Outreach Project, a partnership between the Law School's Immigration Program and the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Area Immigrants' Rights (CAIR) Coalition. The project offers legal assistance to immigrant detainees who are undocumented and awaiting deportation hearings after being charged with crimes ranging from traffic violations to felonies. Other detainees are permanent residents who are being deported after being convicted of a crime; some are fighting deportation by claiming asylum.

The detainees often speak limited English and have only a vague notion of what, if any, rights they have, Vallas said.

"I really wasn't sure what to expect," said Vallas, who intends to make immigration law her career. "I had been told that the day would be fast-moving and that we would be meeting a large number of detainees with all sorts of complaints and questions. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience we had that day."

Vallas and several other law students joined attorneys from CAIR at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va., a little over an hour away from Charlottesville. The students were there to assist CAIR attorneys by filling out intake forms and handing out information packets about immigration laws and procedures. They quickly learned the sometimes-grim nature of working on the frontlines of immigration law.

"What I was least prepared for was the reality of stepping inside a detention facility," Vallas said. The hardest part was "explaining to one person facing deportation for overstaying his authorized period of admission under the Visa Waiver Program, that he had [unknowingly] waived his right to challenge the removal and had no recourse."

Tim Freilich '99, legal director of LAJC's Immigrant Advocacy Program, said it was important for the students to become involved with the immigrant community.

"Immigration is one of the hot issues in our national dialogue right now," he said. "We want every graduating class of future policy-makers to have seen firsthand our economy's dependence on low-wage immigrant workers, and the grinding poverty in which they work and live."

The LAJC also runs the Migrant Farmworker Project, in which law students visit migrant work camps in the area's farms and orchards to distribute information and talk about immigrant rights.

"Seeing the conditions that people live and work in and hearing about how hard the farmworkers work each day was pretty eye-opening," said third-year law student Mike Hollander. "I went to a number of camps that had over 300 workers in them, all living in low, concrete barracks-style housing. Seeing those places was amazing."

For Doug Ford, director of the Law School's Immigration Law Clinic and pro bono immigration project director for LAJC, that's part of the students' legal training.

"The hard-working dignity of many immigrants, contrasted with their limited economic and legal options, can be a challenging and humbling experience for law students," he said.

Third-year law student Jennifer Everett is working with a local women's shelter to help an undocumented immigrant apply for a "U" visa. This special nonimmigrant victim visa can be granted to victims of severe crimes such as domestic abuse, slave-trading, kidnapping, and blackmail, in return for assisting in the prosecution of the perpetrators of these crimes.

Everett explained that the "U" visa offers the potential to change the status of its holder to a legal permanent resident. Unlike other forms of relief provided to immigrants, the victim need not be married to the criminal, nor does the criminal need to be a U.S. citizen in order for the victim to obtain relief, she said.

"Obtaining legal permanent status is especially important for my client and her child, who both suffered extreme emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my client's husband," Everett said. Her client had obtained a restraining order, but Everett said that offered the family only a temporary remedy.

"The U-visa offers a lasting solution to my client. She'll be able to provide for herself and her daughter legally as a U.S. resident," Everett said.

Eight students are also working with attorneys from the law firm Hunton & Williams in the immigration and asylum division of their Pro Bono Partnership with the Law School by researching cases and helping prepare clients for immigration hearings and appeals.

Second-year law student Sarah Bryan has assisted with cases involving immigrant women from Africa and the Middle East who were victims of abuse.

"When someone says, 'I'm going to be persecuted if I'm returned to my country,' it's pretty compelling," she said. Bryan, who hopes to practice employment law when she graduates, said she finds plenty of overlap between employment and immigration law and relishes conducting legal research for such cases.

Ford expects that the pro bono options available to law students will continue to expand.

"The students, with their curiosity and initiative, as much as the faculty, have been the catalysts behind the diversity of the immigration pro bono programs," he said.

Sometimes, as in the case of Hollander, the experience changes the direction of their careers.

"The issues of immigrant rights that I worked on while at LAJC really struck a chord with me," said Hollander, who recently received a Skadden Fellowship to do similar work in Philadelphia following graduation. "In many ways I can trace it all back to my time with the Migrant Farmworker Project."

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