A Voice for Justice

Professor Elora Mukherjee and law students from Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic are fighting for asylum seekers held in detention — and winning.

by Jan Goodwin Published Fall 2015
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Luis Gabriel Hoyos ’16LAW helped win asylum for three siblings, ages 12, 16, and 19. They made the journey to the border without their parents. / Photograph by Jörg MeyerSome of her students at the clinic also connect with its mission on that personal level. Luis Gabriel Hoyos ’16LAW, an American whose family comes from Colombia, became interested in immigration law after his uncle was deported. “He had fled the violence of the drug cartels and lived here for fourteen years. We didn’t know he was undocumented. He started a renovating business — worked hard, contributed to the economy, and paid taxes. And paying taxes may be how ICE caught up with him. He was arrested and then deported within three weeks.”

Veronica Montalvo ’09CC, ’16LAW spent two semesters working at the clinic, and helped represent a seventeen-year-old girl fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. “When I came to Columbia to study law, I never thought I would have the opportunity to work on cases of this magnitude,” she says. Montalvo’s mother, a schoolteacher, immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age fourteen. Her father is a lawyer. “I view asylum as a sacred status, and I was appalled to see how we treat asylum seekers,” Montalvo says. “We should be treating them with compassion. Tragically, we are not.”

The Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is a competitive class, with several applicants for each of the eight to ten slots. Because clinic students frequently want to continue their pro bono work, Mukherjee also started an advanced clinic for another ten students. That’s double the normal clinical teaching load, but Mukherjee is more than willing to do the work, given the clinic’s impact on students and clients.

Students who sign up for the clinic receive seven credits toward their law degree. These may be the most physically and psychologically demanding seven credits they will ever earn. First the students receive a thorough grounding in immigration law. Then, working in pairs, they represent immigrants as they build their defense against deportation. They are responsible for interviewing clients and witnesses, substantiating facts, developing case strategies, filing documents and briefs, and conducting oral arguments. Students will make at least one appearance in immigration court by the end of the year. For many, this will be their first time before a judge.

The students will make at least one appearance in court. For many, this will be their first time before a judge.

In order to research their cases, students visit detention facilities in New Jersey and Texas. Both facilities (and Hutto) are run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest for-profit prison operator. CCA has seen its stock price and revenues soar along with rising trends in incarceration. In 2014 alone it made $1.65 billion. To help secure government contracts, it spends thousands of dollars each year lobbying in Washington, DC, and the company has been known to support organizations that advocate for tougher immigration laws.

CCA lobbyists argue that the company can operate detention centers more cheaply than the government does, and according to Montalvo, the consequences of such thrift are in evidence at Dilley. The center, an hour’s drive from San Antonio, squats at the end of an unpaved road and is “very depressing,” says Montalvo. “It has no trees or shade, and it’s dusty when it’s dry and very muddy when it rains.” The women and children are housed in barracks, and they sleep, eat, and pass their days, weeks, and even months in the compound. “They never know how long they will be incarcerated, which in itself is a cruel and unusual punishment,” adds Mukherjee.

Veronica Montalvo ’09CC, ’16LAW says her father, who is also a lawyer, has been moved by the plight of these families and wants to get involved in pro bono work. / Photograph by Jörg MeyerEverything the detainees own is taken away — not only phones and passports but also wedding bands and rosaries. “There’s no privacy, and correction officers do bed checks throughout the night,” says Montalvo. “Children are supposed to have four hours a day of schooling, but as several age groups are lumped together, it makes real education impossible.” According to immigration-rights advocates, including mental-health professionals, the conditions are so stressful that children are suffering. In June, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and the American Immigration Council submitted a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security documenting the traumatizing impact of detention. It noted that according to an evaluation of families detained at the Karnes County Residential Center, near San Antonio, Texas, “mothers and children of all ages generally showed high levels of anxiety, depression, and despair, and children showed signs of developmental regression.”

Mukherjee says that when the law students arrive at Dilley, both CCA officials and ICE protocols can make it difficult for them to do their jobs. “CCA and ICE are obstructionist in so many ways,” says former clinic participant Cat Kim ’15LAW. “Some correction officers refuse to pass on letters and documents to clients even though they are needed in court hearings.” On one trip earlier this year, the students learned that their bond hearings were scheduled consecutively. “This meant we’d have to be in court with a client, prepared to present their case, the day after meeting them,” says Mukherjee. “We filed motions to push some of the hearings back. They were denied.”

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