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These Young Students And Lawyers Are Helping Women And

Children Get Out Of Immigrant Detention


WASHINGTON -- Cat Kim, a recent graduate from Columbia Law School, had two missions this
summer. One was studying for Migration Agent Melbourne and taking the California bar exam. The
other was preparing cases for immigrant women and children in Texas detention centers who,
without the help of people like her, could be deported.
After taking the bar in July, Kim planned a trip -- not to celebrate taking the test, like some of her
peers -- but to volunteer her time at a family immigrant detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
"I'm sure my Facebook feed will be full of people in Europe or in Hawaii or the Caribbean or
whatever come August," Kim said last month. "Me and my roommate from law school, we're taking
our money and we're going to Texas to work 12 hours a day in a detention center."
Not that Kim's complaining; this will be her third trip to Texas. She's part of a massive effort by the
legal community, including students and young lawyers, to offer free help to some of the tens of
thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. Many of them end up in family detention
in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.
The women and children in the detention centers often can't afford lawyers, but legal representation
can make the difference between being sent back to dangerous conditions in their home country or
staying in the U.S. to plead their case for deportation relief.
"There's so much need. It's kind of like we're constantly operating in crisis mode, because
everything is life or death," Kim said.

People facing immigration proceedings, including


children, have no guarantee of legal
representation. Yet those who do get help are far
more likely to be allowed to remain in the U.S.,
according to data from the Transactional Records
Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigration courts closed more than 12,000 cases
of women and children without representation by
the end of June, versus about 2,000 cases with
representation. Of the families that went up
against the court system by themselves, 97.7
percent received a deportation order. For the smaller number of families with legal representation,
67.1 percent of the cases ended in a deportation order and 32.9 percent of the cases ended with a
decision for the families to stay.
Women and children with representation have been 14 times more likely to get relief in the cases
decided so far. Advocates don't think this is because other families have a weaker case.
"It is so difficult to navigate the system," said Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants' Rights

Clinic at Columbia Law School and Kim's former professor. "Women and children are expected to
defend themselves in court with a judge present, and their opponent is a trained lawyer from the
Department of Homeland Security."
"All of the odds are stacked against these kids and against these women in these immigration
proceedings," she said.

Credit: Charles Reed/Department of Homeland Security


Residents at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, on Apr. 29, 2015.

Much of the work by volunteer lawyers and students is


organized by the CARA Pro Bono project, a
collaboration between the Catholic Legal Immigration
Network, the American Immigration Council, the
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and
Legal Services and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
About 500 people have worked on the project, and there are new volunteers every week, organizers
say. Some volunteers are on the ground at the detention facilities, while many others provide backup
from afar -- preparing documents, keeping track of cases and gathering information.
In addition to taking her law students to Dilley, Mukherjee has put together a remote team to
prepare for merits hearings for women who were previously deported, working in tandem with Yale
Law School students Conchita Cruz, 29, and Swapna Reddy, 28.

Cruz said they've organized about 30 volunteers, many of whom are her law school classmates. They
send out a list of things that need to be done -- translating interviews, preparing affidavits and
drafting briefs -- and people pick up the different tasks. Yale's Gruber Program for Global Justice and
Womens Rights is covering the costs, such as printing and making phone calls abroad.
Working at an internship during the day and contributing to the project on nights and weekends,
Cruz puts in around 20 hours a week in her spare time, she said. Her background in one of the
things that motivates her: Cruz's mother was a Cuban refugee and her father is from Guatemala, one
of the countries women and children are fleeing.
"I have a lot of personal investment," she said.
The same is true for Aminta Menjivar, 24, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 10.
Menjivar is undocumented, but is allowed to work and remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action
for Childhood Arrivals program. Her immigration lawyer is Laura Lichter, a past president of the
American Immigration Lawyers Association who has done extensive pro bono work at family
detention facilities. When Menjivar told Lichter she wanted to find a way to help others, the attorney
told her about the CARA project.
Menjivar went to Dilley twice this summer to help prepare women for credible fear interviews,where
immigration authorities determine whether they can move forward in seeking asylum or other
relief.She isn't a lawyer, but was able to do intake and talk to the women, and she's planning to do
more remote work, such as interpreting over the phone.
A graduate of the University of Denver, Menjivar said the work in Dilley is an outgrowth of her
efforts to encourage other undocumented immigrants to attend college like she did. She eventually
wants to get a master's degree.
"I focused on empowering youth when I was [at the University of Denver], and now I'm making that
transition from just trying to help immigrant youth to doing some of the bigger things -- like trying to
find out why are women being compelled to make that dangerous trek from their countries of origin
to the United States," Menjivar said.

Left: Courtesy of Aminta Menjivar; Right: Photo by Kendal Nystedt


Aminta Menjivar (left) and Jessica Rofe (right) workwith women and children in immigrant
detention.
Some fellowship programs, such as Immigrant Justice Corps, also support free legal services for
immigrants.The New York-based organization, launched a year ago, enables law school and fouryear university graduates to spend two years doing immigration work -- basically, it's a Teach for
America-like program for immigration law. Fellows take time off from their regular work to go to
family detention centers in Texas for two week stretches and provide legal help there.
"In south Texas, it was really jarring to see the conditions of the mothers and children in the facility
and just to think about how families who have already experienced significant trauma are almost
being re-traumatized in a prison -- what they call a 'residential center,'" said Jessica Rofe, 30, a
fellow who joined in 2014 after graduating from New York University Law School.
The three families Rofe worked with have now been released, she said, either because of her team's
efforts or because immigration policy is shifting away from detention.
"To look at what was happening in Texas, and see very young children and their mothers in jail with
no lawyer -- for us at Immigrant Justice Corps, it seemed so obvious that we had to go down there
and pitch in," said Rachel Tiven, the group's executive director.
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