LSU Law Students Offer Help to Immigration Detainees

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Volunteer translators and students traveled to the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile, LA, on Oct. 8 to meet with immigration detainees. The group included, from left: Mary Ann Garrett, Ross Murray, Chris Kinnison, Omar Salas, Sarah Cable, Jennifer Hull, Andrew Mau, Bryant Harvey, Nicole Schulte, Bruce Hamilton.

 
As many LSU Law students recently left campus on the first day of fall break, a small group of them spent the day in jail. The volunteers went to the South Louisiana Correctional Center in Basile, LA, to meet with immigrant detainees, inform them about deportation procedure, and screen their cases for potential representation. The students met inside the jail Oct. 8 with about 60 detainees from various countries, including Haiti, China, El Salvador, and Honduras.

“The program at Basile was originally started about two years ago but later was suspended,” explained Kenneth Mayeaux, director of the Law Center’s immigration clinic. “We are thankful for the opportunity to re-launch the outreach program as a component of the immigration clinic,” he said. “The primary purpose is to provide information about the [deportation] process. It’s so completely foreign to [the detainees]. Most have never been in jail before.” Detainees often have limited exposure to legal proceedings, according to Mayeaux, and they typically misunderstand deportation as a criminal process.

“The second goal is to identify those who may have defenses,” he said. The outreach program already has successfully identified several detainees with strong defenses, according to Mayeaux, including citizenship. One man didn’t realize he had a derivative citizenship claim, meaning he could claim citizenship through a family relative—a defense to deportation, known in immigration law as “removal.”

Once potential defenses are identified, Mayeaux said, his program either locates attorneys for the detainees or the student-attorneys enrolled in the clinic represent them. But regardless of whether the detainees’ cases are taken, they benefit from telling their stories and getting basic information. “Their stress level goes down, and they’re able to cope,” Mayeaux said.

The law students, including six enrolled in the clinic and three translators, met with Warden David Viator as well as Philip Miller, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s New Orleans field office director, and Scott Sutterfield, deputy field office director. Miller welcomed the students and told them the government appreciates their effort. The students met with the detainees across divided wooden tables in a visitation area.

The experience was sobering, according to Jennifer Hull, a second-year student who served as a translator. Although some detainees commit crimes, she said, others are taken into custody for minor offenses such as traffic violations. They don’t have representation, Hull noted, and language barriers typically leave them in the dark.

She cited one Honduran man who had been working to support his wife and five children. Pulled over for a minor traffic violation, he was detained for weeks without being able to contact his family. He cried as he told his story, she said. “He was obviously a good person just trying to make a good life for his family.”

Hull is on the board of directors of the Public Interest Law Society, which recruited translators for the program. Omar Salas and Andrew Mau, both second-year students, also put their Spanish skills to work. Mayeaux, who is fluent in Spanish, and a local pastor, Mary Ann Garrett, also helped to translate the students’ dialogues.

Although the experience was challenging, Hull said, it was also rewarding. “I felt good when I left,” she said. “I felt I did something good.” Mayeaux noted the same sense of satisfaction. Although the program has educational benefits, teaching students the techniques of client interviewing, it’s also personally gratifying, he said. “It’s also about making a connection with human beings and affirming their dignity.”

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