Tatiana Alonso (LAW 3rd year) heard story after story from women who had suffered horrendous violence, including multiple gang rapes, when she visited the South Texas Family Residential Detention Center in March 2018. Alonso and 11 other members of the Immigration Law Society were the first group of Chicago-Kent College of Law students to travel to Dilley, Texas, to help prepare women seeking asylum for their credible-fear interviews with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.
“As the daughter of immigrants, I know that no one leaves their home without reason,” she explains. “These women and children have a right to seek asylum and a better life.”
She shared her experiences in summer 2018 with the Chicago-Kent Board of Advisors, noting the tremendous need for lawyers at Dilley and the secondary trauma that students faced upon their return to classes. After her talk, each member of the board personally pledged $1,000 to fund a January 2019 trip to Dilley.
“The students who go to Dilley are a remarkable group of people,” says Professor Felice Batlan, who serves as faculty adviser for the trip. “Not only do they put their heart and energy into the trip, they bring a tremendous amount of substantive knowledge about asylum law. They are also empathetic, smart, and creative, and able to work very long hours in difficult circumstances.”
With funding secure, Chicago-Kent created the Dilley Practicum, a two-credit course for 12 students. With more students wanting to participate than there were slots available, the Immigration Law Society, under then-President Joanna Martin (LAW ’19), were diligent in selecting the students who would participate in the class and the trip to Texas.
“We gavepriority to students who attended the trip the first year because this would make us a more efficient and effective group and therefore would be able to work with more women and children. This left us with only five slots,” explains Martin. “For those slots we considered Spanish-speaking ability, passion for this work, and past experiences.”
In the months before the trip, the students met as a class to discuss, among other subjects, how to represent dozens of clients per day in a detention center. Dilley veterans carefully prepared the newcomers on what to expect.
Meanwhile, immigration practice and rules were quickly changing. The government began separating families, and the attorney general issued an opinion stating that gender violence without state action did not constitute ground for asylum. By the time the group left for Texas, the Trump administration had greatly slowed the number of migrants being allowed to cross into the United States from Mexico to request asylum.
Upon arrival, the student team—supervised by Samantha Lloyd (LAW ’13), an associate at Ogletree Deakins in Denver—found a smaller but still substantial number of detainees. Meeting with more than 200 clients over six days, the students were able to spend more time with each client.
“The biggest difference this time around was the number of interviews we were able to attend. This is important because we were able to give the women courage but also provide witness to their testimony and request alternate lines of questioning from the asylum officers if they miss a key part of the woman’s story,” explains Lloyd. “The students rose to the occasion and changed many lives.”
The students found that some hearing officers were requiring that young children testify about the violence that they witnessed, so the team had to quickly learn how to interview children.
“Although we cannot be absolutely sure of the numbers, it appears that hearing officers found for our students’ clients 100 percent of the time,” says Batlan.
When the students returned, they began sharing their experiences with a wider audience, writing research papers, op-eds, and essays; speaking at professional panels; and creating audiocasts and essays. One of the students is in the process of producing a documentary. About half of the student team graduated this year—with many going into public-interest jobs or working in the field of immigration.
“The women and children in Dilley are in the most vulnerable position but also are the strongest and most resilient people I have ever met and deserve to be treated with human decency and to be given a fair shot at a better life,” says Martin. She has accepted a position with the Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., where a majority of her clients, she says, will be dealing with immigration-related issues.