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BYU law students help fleeing immigrants caught between countries

First Published      Last Updated Mar 30 2017 07:58 am

Legal aid » Future lawyers volunteer at a Texas facility where women and children, hoping to get asylum, await the U.S. authorities’ decision.

During five "life-changing" days in Dilley, Texas, 10 BYU law students listened to women and children who had fled their homelands after being raped, threatened and abused, watching loved ones perish.

The "externship" was a volunteer opportunity to render legal aid at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a holding place with 2,400 beds for women and children caught crossing the border illegally and hoping to find asylum in the U.S.

"The only thing that made me different from these women was that I somehow was born inside the United States," said Courtney Young, a second-year law student at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

Since 2014, mothers like these have been separated from their husbands and adult sons at the border and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Trump administration recently announced it is considering separating even the younger children from mothers in an effort to deter illegal immigration.

The idea won't stop people from coming illegally, Young said, calling it "cruel." It would "take away the only secure thing these children have."

Young was "shocked," she said, as detainees told her "the same story over and over" about murder, rape and extortion by gangs.

A single mother told another BYU student, Grey Lund, about an anonymous phone call that threatened her 9-year-old daughter.

"They said, 'Woman, we know who you are, we know where you live, we know your daughter. If you don't pay us by the end of the week, we're going to kill your daughter,' " Lund said. To show the threats were serious, the man on the phone named the time her daughter had left for school that day, when the woman had left for work and when each had returned home.

Local police cannot protect communities from these threats, said BYU law professor Carolina Nuñez, because the gangs either have infiltrated the government or threatened the officers.

Other women have suffered sexual and domestic abuse. Nuñez spoke with one who was hesitant to disclose why she had come to the U.S. but finally explained that her husband had repeatedly molested their daughter.

"We couldn't get away from him," she told Nuñez.

High-stakes test • Department of Homeland Security agents interview the immigrants to determine the credibility of any threats they may face. If they pass, they are released to finish their asylum applications elsewhere in the U.S. If they fail, they appear before an immigration judge, who could deport them.

ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda explained that "ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates."

Of the immigrants detained at this center (the largest of its kind), 95 percent to 98 percent end up passing their interviews with legal assistance and are released into the U.S., usually with ankle monitors, said Elena Alderman, a spokeswoman with CARA, a coalition of nonprofit groups that provides pro bono legal aid and organizes volunteers like those from BYU. At detention centers where access to legal aid is more restrictive and judges rule more harshly, Alderman said, rates may be close to 40 percent or lower.

To gain asylum, immigrants must convince officials they fear for their lives in their former country due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group that is persecuted by the government or by a group the government "can't or won't control," said BYU adjunct professor Lindsay Petersen, an immigration attorney.

Communication can be challenging during the interviews, Young said, due to language barriers and because interpreters and asylum officers often interrupt the storytelling.

A Haitian woman — who fled with her 2-year-old to Brazil, then Panama and walked the rest of the way to the U.S. border — told Young she had received death threats in her home country.

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