Immigrant Families Seeking Asylum Gain Vital Help From UCLA Law Students

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in August 2017 and has been updated to reflect recent developments in immigration law and policy.

As the Trump Administration's policy of separating immigrant children from their parents or guardians began to draw attention and condemnation in the spring of 2018, UCLA School of Law professor Ingrid Eagly, along with two former UCLA Law students, published their groundbreaking 15-year study of asylum adjudication and family detention.

Based on a review of all immigration court cases from 2001 to 2016, the article in the California Law Review, "Detaining Families: A Study of Asylum Adjudication in Family Detention," revealed the substantial barriers to justice that many asylum seekers find in the United States. Eagly's co-authors on the article are Steven Shafer '15, a supervising attorney for released youths at the Legal Orientation Program for Custodians of Unaccompanied Minors at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, and Jana Whalley '17, a University of California presidential fellow at the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, UCLA Law sent its latest group of current students to a detention facility in Dilley, Texas, where they assist immigrant families in navigating the process of admission into the country.

Here is a report from the trip that Eagly and her students made to Dilley in 2017.

Immigrant women and children detained in harsh conditions in Texas while they seek asylum in the United States have received valuable legal assistance from students in UCLA School of Law's David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy (EPILP).

Led by UCLA Law professor and EPILP faculty director Ingrid Eagly, students Katrina Landeta '19, Kelly Miller '19, Sasha Novis '19 and Heejin Hwang '19 traveled to Dilley, Texas, in June 2017 to prepare mothers and children incarcerated at the South Texas Family Residential Center for their Credible Fear Interviews, the first step of the asylum process. Only those whom the government deemed to have a credible fear of persecution or torture could then apply for asylum; otherwise they were deported.

"Every single woman I met had witnessed a murder or had family members or neighbors 'disappeared,'" said Hwang. Like her fellow students on the trip, Hwang was a member of Law Students for Immigrant Justice, a group dedicated to the rights of immigrants. "Some had endured years of physical and sexual abuse from partners or relatives. Death threats were the norm."

The UCLA Law group worked with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which provides free legal representation for those held in Dilley.

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L-R: Professor Ingrid Eagly and Class of 2019 students Kelly Miller, Katrina Landeta, Sasha Novis and Heejin Hwang


"CARA's team on the ground does invaluable work to empower women to effectively tell their stories so they may receive a positive credible fear finding and can remain in the United States to pursue asylum," said Landeta. "It was a privilege to be able to contribute to their work."

The mothers and children were from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Romania, Russia and Venezuela, among other countries. Most had been transferred to the Dilley center after harrowing journeys to the U.S. and several days' detention in short-term holding cells known as hieleras (ice boxes) or perreras (dog pounds), which are notoriously dehumanizing and unsafe.

"People are generally aware of the flawed immigration system, but it is less known that hundreds of women and children are being cycled through these prisons," said Novis. "It was heartbreaking to see so many mothers — many of them younger than we are — and their children in detention."

The U.S. government created family detention centers for children and their mothers fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries, but these detainees are often separated from other relatives like husbands and fathers. The Dilley facility, located 70 miles southwest of San Antonio and 90 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, is the largest of three such centers in the U.S.

For Miller, the experience was as eye-opening as it was gratifying and rare for a law student. "It was rejuvenating to step away from the books and connect with fierce legal advocates and strong mothers who have come here seeking safety for themselves and their children," she said.

After their trip concluded, Professor Eagly and the students, along with a CARA staff attorney, shared their experiences at a panel on September 18, 2017, hosted by EPILP and the Prison Law and Policy Program at UCLA Law.