Three law students spend spring break helping immigration detainees in Texas

Rather than spend their spring break relaxing from the strenuous demands of law school, three Case Western Reserve University School of Law students spent their time working with immigration detainees in Dilley, Texas.

The South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley houses mothers and children who might have illegally crossed the border into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security recently opened the facility to help accelerate the process of removing the illegal immigrants and hold families that crossed the border for asylum.

Jennifer Peyton, a Cleveland immigration lawyer and adjunct law professor at CWRU, offered students Harrison Blythe, JoAnna Gavigan and Madeline Jack the opportunity to volunteer at STFRC. Peyton had volunteered at the facility in August of 2014 and was well aware of the dire and arguably inhumane conditions at the center.

“These families have become the latest collateral damage in an immigration system that lacks sensibility, flexibility and humanity and that fails to provide fair hearings, even for those who face grave danger if they are wrongly deported,” Peyton said in a press release.

Peyton decided to bring CWRU students along with her to Dilley to “provide them with a practical experience that many law students lack in law school,” she said in the release.

In Dilley with Peyton, the law students met with detainees at the center and assessed their legal needs. In addition “they worked with the detainees to gather bond documents and prepare bond submissions for immigration court.”

After volunteering at STFRC for a week, the students gained an experience much greater than they originally thought when embarking on the trip.

“I was particularly invested in one woman’s story,” said Blythe. “I’ll call her M. M had a pretty comfortable life in Honduras. She worked for the national electric company, where she had a number of employees who reported to her. She had a car and a house.”

“Unfortunately she ended up having some problems because she was a member of a political party that lost power,” she continued.

According to Blythe, M received a number of threats to her and her daughter because of her political opinions, which led to her leaving Honduras.

“She never planned on leaving Honduras or coming to the States,” continued Blythe. “It just happened to be the place where she knew some people who could help her feel safe.”

However, even after moving to Dilley, life was difficult for M.

“She was really frustrated by the time I first spoke to her,” said Blythe. “By the end of the week, we had helped her get to a place where she could pay some money (a bond) to get out of Dilley. She came to see us on our last day at the detention facility, and she looked like a different person. It was the first time I’d seen her smile, and I had seen her every day that week.”

Jack also had a memorable time on the trip.

“There were three law students that went on the trip, and none of us really speak Spanish,” she said. “I still smile when I think about our attempts to communicate with the women and children through broken Spanish and a lot of nonverbal communication. In these situations, we are all boiled down to our common humanity. On one occasion, it took two of us to understand that one detainee was telling us that another detainee, who only spoke an indigenous language, had a severe speech impediment.”

Jack also had some suggestions about how students in Cleveland could learn more about undocumented citizens.

“I think the greatest things anyone can do is to educate themselves and be compassionate,” she said. “Far too often we are only presented with one side of a narrative, and we neglect to seek the other side of the story. Start reading different news sources about this topic or anything you’re passionate about, ask questions and seek answers. Also try to imagine yourself in these women’s circumstances. If you are fleeing violence in your country with your small children, you don’t speak English or even Spanish, and you are suddenly detained for reasons unknown and not given answers, you would be scared, frustrated and worn out. If you are knowledgeable and compassionate, people will listen and you will change some minds and do some good.”

The three students noted that whatever they do in the future, they will take the stories and values they learned on this spring break trip and use it to enhance the betterment of society.