Helping immigrants in need at the border

Scenes from immigrant detention centers at the border of the U.S. and Mexico hit home for Amitay Flores.

Children separated from their parents and crammed in tight cells, sometimes sleeping on cement floors. Unsanitary conditions that don’t permit a clean place to change a diaper or wash a bottle. Cold temperatures that leave those locked up prone to the flu and other illnesses.

The troubling situation in photos flashed in news stories about the immigration crisis left Flores feeling helpless and angry.

Flores, a second-year student at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, could easily picture her own family behind the chain-linked fences had circumstances played out differently at the time her parents arrived in the U.S. from Mexico years ago. So as the debate over detaining immigrants in ICE detention facilities continued on the political stage, she sought a way to make a difference.

Her passion to help those in dire circumstances inspired Flores to raise money independently as part of the Student Immigration Law Association to send a group of law students to the border earlier this spring to offer assistance to those held at the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas.

Ten students and U professors Melissa Moeinvaziri and RonNell Andersen Jones offered services to many housed in the 1,904-person facility for a week earlier this spring, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the country down temporarily.

Students were mentored by their professors and licensed attorneys to provide a variety of assistance to immigrants who were representing themselves in asylum proceedings. The group partnered with non-profit American Gateways that connected them to immigrants in need.

“When you’re detained, you don’t always have access to legal representation or know how to navigate this incredibly complex system,” said Flores, who aspires to practice immigration law after graduation and organized the trip in her capacity as president of the Student Immigration Law Association. Many local legal providers are overwhelmed because of the border crisis and the ability for those detained to connect in a timely manner with an attorney can be difficult. Law students being supervised by attorneys brought additional human capital to the region to help, she said.

Moeinvaziri, an assistant adjunct professor at the College of Law and an attorney who practices immigration law, said the opportunity to travel to the border allowed students to take a deep dive into the current immigration situation to see first-hand how real people are being affected by polices administered by President Donald Trump.

Moeinvaziri taught an immigration law course along with Leonor Perretta, a local immigration law attorney, in advance of the trip. The classroom time allowed the professors to prepare students for what to expect on the frontlines of the border crisis.

“I believe this will be an invaluable experience for the students,” said Moeinvaziri. “This experience should instill in them the importance of volunteering. While they are getting school credit for this, I hope the students are encouraged to volunteer when they are attorneys. As a profession we make a living off of a complex and inaccessible legal system, I believe we owe it to our community to off pro bono services as often as we are able. “

Many of the experiences gained during the trip, which happened right before the U.S. shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will stay with students for a lifetime, Flores said.

Throughout the course of the week, students met with clients and laid the groundwork for cases through translating documents. They learned to interview people and practiced how to communicate compassionately, with clients describing trauma on a level many students hadn’t previously witnessed.

Andersen Jones said the students’ professionalism and quality of work in hard circumstances impressed the group of professors overseeing the work.

“I could not have been prouder of the students who volunteered on this border trip. They were professional, focused, compassionate, and tireless in their efforts to assist. They represented the very best of what Utah Law stands for—hard work, creative problem-solving, and, especially, a commitment to serving those most in need. They were impressive to everyone we met,” said Andersen Jones.

Flores said the experience will stick with her as memorable from her time at the College of Law. She’s grateful for donor contributions that allowed the trip to happen, including donations from the Utah Bar Foundation and law firms Fabian Van Cott and Parr Brown Loveless and Gee.

“Not only is this experience the most memorable, but it has been one of the most impactful experiences in my life. It was an eye-opening experience to witness first-hand how our immigration system treats those who are coming to the United States to escape from violence and extreme poverty. There are numerous barriers that are intentionally placed to prevent these individuals from accessing justice,” said Flores.

“I believe law students have a crucial role to play in tearing down these barriers and assisting immigrants to apply for relief from detention. I look forward to the day when the United States government stops placing immigrants in detention, until then, I will continue to do everything in my power to serve those who come to our country looking for a better future,” she said.