Clinic director, students stand up for legal rights of immigrant detainees

Six young women —immigrant detainees fleeing persecution — have legal representation now because of Wayne Law's Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic.

Clinic Director Sabrina Balgamwalla, assistant professor (clinical) at the law school, got notice in February from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center that a number of women who were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had been sent from the Mexican border to the Calhoun County Jail.

All of those women, in interviews with asylum officers, established that they had a credible fear of harm if they were forced to return to their home countries.

MIRC called in the clinic to see if they might represent some of those women.

"I asked three advanced clinic students — Cesilie Cordovilla, Lauren Pereny and Rachel Lerman — how many of these asylum-seekers they wanted to represent," Balgamwalla said. "The students' reply: All of them.

"These six clients are all under the age of 30. The basis of their claims vary. Some are fleeing persecution in the form of gang violence, some because of their political activities and some on account of their sexual orientation."

The morning after the call came in, the professor and the three law students drove to the Calhoun County Jail and met with the women.

"Four of our clients were released on bond," Balgamwalla said. "The others were not able to find qualifying sponsors who had the financial resources to post bond, and so, after some discussion, the clinic moved forward with representation in all of their asylum hearings."

Being released on bond is ideal for asylum seekers, she said.

"They will have the opportunity to live with family or other supportive people here in the United States," Balgamwalla said. "They will have more time to prepare their cases, which also will make it easier for them to find attorneys to represent them.

"Immigration detention poses a number of barriers to individuals who are seeking asylum. They must complete applications, which are available only in English and require every question to be answered in English. They must obtain evidence, some of which also needs to be translated. Obtaining documentation usually requires calls to family or friends in the home country who can help. The phones in the jail are expensive to use and are not always available."

And all of these objectives must be met within a relatively short time —sometimes as little as four weeks, she said.

"But the most difficult aspect of detention is psychological, because these asylum-seekers are in jail, and are treated no differently from inmates," Balgamwalla said. "Asylum-seekers flee traumatic situations, and being detained often compounds their mental suffering. Getting out on bond allows people more time to recover, develop a support system and develop their cases, so bond was the clinic's first priority.

"The clinic's detained docket is growing because we know having a lawyer is particularly important for these asylum seekers. Nationwide, only 11% of detained asylum seekers are able to obtain counsel, and free legal resources for detainees in Michigan are very limited."

And on April 17, the attorney general certified a decision in Matter of M-S- that prevents individuals in expedited proceedings who passed credible fear interviews from seeking bond at all. This decision will not go into effect for 90 days and is already under review in the Ninth Circuit.

"This decision was a devastating development for asylum-seekers and very painful for us after witnessing first-hand the impact of securing release for people in detention," the professor said.

How did the women, who crossed the Mexican border to enter the country, come to be in Michigan?

"ICE reserves the right to transfer detainees," Balgamwalla said. "As facilities on the southern border become crowded and the court dockets get longer, we are seeking transfers to detention facilities elsewhere in the country. Any facility that has available ICE detention beds is an option."

For two of the clinic's clients, bond was not an option.

"But the students really wanted to represent these clients in their asylum hearings," Balgamwalla said. "I knew it would be challenging, but I was moved by these clients and their stories, as well as the students' commitment to helping them as best we could under the circumstances. These clients had already been in the county jail for a month before the clinic representatives met with them."

With the help of AILC student attorneys, the two clients who remained in detention were ultimately granted asylum.

Preparing for a client's asylum hearing is an intensive process, the professor said.

"An asylum-seeker has about four hours in which to present evidence that they satisfy the legal requirements for asylum," Balgamwalla said, "and our clients' testimony is central to proving their eligibility for relief. We spend hours in witness preparation. Student attorneys who are multilingual (such as Cordovilla and Lerman) can communicate with their clients directly, but otherwise, we require the assistance of volunteer interpreters. Student attorneys also brief these cases and submit corroborating documentation and evidence — document stacks that are regularly over 500 pages."

Cordovilla said she's dedicated many more hours to her clinic work than is required. She helps sometimes as an interpreter as well as working as a student attorney.

"I wouldn't change it for the world," the student said. "Losing a couple hours of sleep is nothing compared to the kinds of things these women do to fight for their freedom. Witnessing what these detained women have been capable of with just the use of payphones is incredible. I've learned so much from taking on these cases, but the most impactful thing that I have learned is that a determined woman's power is nearly limitless."

Lerman said she, too, has learned a lot by working for the detainees through the clinic.

"The biggest thing I have learned is how many big changes need to be made to our immigration system," the recent Wayne Law graduate said. "Detention creates so many barriers to asylum-seekers, and makes it so difficult for them to be successful in their claims. I have learned so much about practical aspects of the law — how to develop evidence, how to make strategic decisions about what to include in the record."

Both students plan legal careers in immigration law.

Representing the detained women has been arduous, but not without bright spots. When things go well, such as when clients are released on bond to family members, the professor and the students rejoice.

"One client's uncle, who had driven all the way from Iowa (to the Calhoun County Jail to pick up his niece, released on bond), offered to keep driving east so he could take his niece's student attorney to dinner to thank her," Balgamwalla said. "The student was touched, and thanked him, and told them not to make any detours and head home."

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