Maine Law students provide legal aid at Texas immigration detention center

Clinical Professor Anna WelchLaw students from Maine are providing volunteer legal help to immigrant and refugee women held at a federal detention center in Texas, in response to a sharp increase in immigration arrests over the past year.

A total of 10 students enrolled in Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic are participating. Several have already made the trip to Laredo, and others are scheduled to go within the next month.

The students spend a week volunteering with attorneys and staff of the Laredo Project, a collaboration between Jones Day, the nation’s largest law firm, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

At the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Laredo, the Maine Law students perform a range of duties, including intake interviews, case reviews, and filing motions for relief, such as emergency stays on deportation orders.

The students are well prepared for these tasks because of their experience as student attorneys at Maine Law’s Refugee & Human Rights Clinic. Students in the clinic receive training in all facets of immigration law and lawyering, and they represent real clients in asylum and other humanitarian-based petitions, under the guidance of Anna Welch, Sam L. Cohen Refugee & Human Rights Clinical Professor.

The Maine Law students involved in this project are Joann Bautista, Eric Benson, Nora Bosworth (two trips), Katie Bressler, Sara Cressey, Greta Lozada, Hanni Pastinen, Christiana Rein, Noel Sidorek, and Jeremy Williams.

“Working with the Laredo Project, our students are able to take the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and through their cases here in Maine, and put them to good use for the women who are being detained in Texas,” Welch said. “The effort reflects the clinic’s dual mission of training future lawyers while engaging in public service.”

“The majority of these women fled to the U.S. to escape violence, rape, gang activity, forced labor, extreme poverty, and other horrific circumstances. We want to help make sure they are treated fairly, and their due process rights are upheld.”

Some of the women being detained in Laredo crossed the border recently, particularly from crime-ravaged countries including Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

But there is another, growing category of detainees causing great concern within the civil justice and legal aid communities: Women who have lived in the U.S. for years without incident, who are now being targeted by tougher enforcement guidelines.

“These are people who have been working, paying taxes, and raising children who are U.S. citizens. They were not a priority under the Bush or Obama administrations. But that has changed under President Trump,” Welch said. “Now they are being detained after traffic stops or other routine contact with law enforcement, and they face the very real threat of deportation and separation from their families.”

Arrests of undocumented immigrants and immigrants whose legal status is unclear have soared under the Trump administration. ICE made 110,568 arrests between January 20 and Sept. 30, a 42 percent increase over the same period in 2016.

Nora Bosworth '18“The women’s stories varied widely, from harrowing stories of trauma and persecution, to more routine accounts of mothers who had been living and working in the U.S. for years and were apprehended by ICE,” said Maine Law student Nora Bosworth, who traveled to Laredo in July.

Welch hopes to continue the collaboration with the Laredo Project for as long as student volunteers are needed. In January, Bosworth will return to Texas for a second week of service.

“The opportunity to help represent these women and to hear their stories firsthand was an invaluable experience,” Bosworth said.