Academics and Research

Working for justice: Denver Law students assist with asylum cases on the border

Students at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law have stepped forward to assist Central American women and children who have fled devastating violence in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States.

In late 2014, Sturm students Sean Ays and Jessica Rehms put their legal education to work well before graduation by assisting immigrant women with applications to bond out of detention.   The women were detained with their children in Artesia, N.M., at a converted federal law enforcement training facility with the capacity to house 600 immigrants. Due to the facility’s remote location, no legal services were available in the area. Immigrants are not entitled to representation at the government’s expense, but without legal help, few detainees are able to navigate the complex system of immigration law.

The students joined volunteers recruited by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which mounted an unprecedented effort to fly in volunteer pro bono lawyers from all over the country to work on these cases. Once in Artesia, AILA volunteers set up makeshift office space at a local church.

Many of the detainees fled horrific violence in their home countries only to experience more problems during their harrowing journey to the United States.

“Any way you cut it, detention and family detention is wrong,” Rehms says. “Growing children need stimulation, community and love, things that a detention facility cannot provide.”

Ays and Rehms follow in the footsteps of Christina Brown (JD ’13), who was one of the first immigration attorneys to respond to the humanitarian and legal crises that began in Artesia in June 2014. In charge of coordinating the volunteer teams that arrived each week, Brown also won the first asylum case to go to a full merits hearing in Artesia — a major win, especially since many government officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, were quoted as saying that none of the detainees had viable claims to asylum.

“I had never witnessed an environment like [Artesia],” says Lisa Graybill, a lecturer at the law college and supervisor of the Immigrants Rights Lab. “We worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the detention center and then 7 p.m. to whenever at the church, seven days a week, reviewing cases for the clients we saw that day and prepping for clients the next day. It felt like a combination MASH unit and twisted assembly line where the cases just keep coming.”

The American Immigration Council, American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Law Center and other groups filed a federal lawsuit demanding due process for the immigrants detained at Artesia.

In December, the government shut down the Artesia facility and began transferring immigrants to a 1,200-bed facility in Karnes City, Texas, and a newly constructed facility in Dilley, Texas. The latter building, when complete, will have the capacity to house 2,400 immigrant women and children.

Graybill and students in the spring 2015 Immigrants’ Rights Lab have shifted their focus to Texas; Brown is already there, having relocated to San Antonio in December to continue coordinating pro bono representation for the families. Along with Associate Professor Christopher Lasch and Graduate School of Social Work Professor Debora Ortega, Graybill will supervise a group of 10 law students and four social work students providing cross-disciplinary services to women and children at Dilley and Karnes over spring break.

“These women fled rape, gang violence and other abuse to seek refuge in the United States,” Graybill says, “and instead of offering them protection, we place them in prison with their children. For the students, witnessing the difference legal assistance can make for these women is a profound experience. The students know the work they are doing is literally saving lives.”

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