During last month’s spring break, UC Hastings students Elizabeth Lincoln ‘18, Griffin Estes ‘18, Nathalie Camarena ‘19, and Maria “Lupita” López Segoviano ’19 skipped the beachside resort and headed to Texas to participate as volunteers with the Karnes Pro Bono Project. This program, conducted through the 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency RAICES, promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees at the Karnes County Residential Center.
The students worked under the supervision of RAICES attorneys, who offer free legal services to women and children at the family unit detention center operated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The facility houses up to 800 women and their young children (“residents”) who are classified as "family units" after crossing the border into the United States. “We saw children ranging in ages from as young as a few months old to seventeen years old,” recalls Elizabeth. “The women are often fleeing severe domestic violence, threats, or other violence."
Commuting from a nearby hotel in the small town of Karnes, the students would spend their days (10am to 7pm) at the detention center. Their primary duty was to help prepare the mothers for their credible fear interview, which is conducted by an asylum officer and determines whether an applicant and her child are able to stay in the United States while they apply for asylum. It is the first step towards getting out of the detention center and legally entering the United States.
“We spent about an hour with each client discussing the major prongs of her asylum claim: why did she flee her country, from whom was she fleeing, why was that person or group persecuting her, did she try to get help from the local police or government, and why the United States is safer than relocating within to her country,” says Elizabeth.
The students not only gained legal experience, but also witnessed firsthand some of the challenges facing detainees in immigration centers, such as difficulties in communicating with pro bono counsel. “I was surprised to discover the amount of women and children that spoke indigenous languages,” says Nathalie. “You would need to call a translation service that charged the pro bono organization by the minute. Even then, some clients would not understand a specific dialect, which made it difficult to build trust with them and let them know that we were trying to help them.”
Griffin was most struck by the realization that these women and their children were confined in these conditions without ever breaking a law. “What many people don’t realize is that the women detained at Karnes did not commit a crime,” he says. “I hope that more people come to see these detention centers for what they are, and that we begin to treat asylum seekers with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Witnessing the daily challenges the women were facing helped the students to admire the strength of the clients they were serving. “I was born in Mexico and emigrated to the U.S. at 9 years old,” says Lupita. “I tried to imagine myself in the overwhelming position the women found themselves in and realized that if not for luck in being born to different circumstances, this could be any of us.”
“The mothers that we met at the Karnes detention center are some of the strongest women I have ever met. It is incredibly powerful experience to spend a week at the detention center and witness how individuals are treated while they are searching for protection and pursuing legal immigration avenues into the United States,” says Elizabeth.
Each student was extremely grateful to the UC Hastings community for making financial contributions to enable this trip to happen and recommend students participate in this worthwhile experience next year. “Even though I don’t plan on practicing immigration law, going on this trip allowed me to learn so much and immediately use that knowledge to personally benefit someone at that moment,” says Lupita. “It is very powerful and we don't really have many opportunities for this in law school.”
RAICES is always looking for volunteers, especially individuals who want to gain experience in immigration law and speak Spanish or Portuguese. For those interested in volunteering or donating, please click here.