Immigration Clinic Students Take a Stand Against Administration’s Policies

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On January 25, 2017, President Trump signed two executive orders expanding immigration enforcement across the nation. Students at the Immigration Clinic witnessed the repercussions for South Florida’s immigrant community and mobilized to respond.

The Clinic received panicked calls from clients who fear being torn from their families and deported before their immigration cases resolved. The stark impact of the executive orders was in full view at the Clinic’s recent visit to the Glades County Detention Center, where students found that the number of detainees had tripled.

Since its inception in 2009, the Clinic has provided “Know Your Rights” presentations to immigration detainees at Glades, a county jail which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants ICE believes have violated U.S. immigration laws. The remote facility is located in Moore Haven, Florida, a rural community over 100 miles from Miami and just slightly closer to another large South Florida city, Fort Lauderdale.

Although the consequences of deportation are severe for many, there is no public defender system for poor immigrants in deportation proceedings. Detainees are at a particular disadvantage in hiring private attorneys because they are less likely to have the financial resources to do so. Many lawyers are reluctant to take detained cases, particularly at remote facilities like Glades. As a result, only about 14% of detained immigrant women and men are represented by attorneys. The vast majority of detainees lose their immigration cases, even when they are eligible for relief from removal.

Each semester, the Clinic visits Glades to help prepare immigrants to represent themselves in immigration court. The Clinic also takes a small number of cases for individual representation and refers cases to private attorneys willing to take cases pro bono. During these visits, students learn not only about the immigrants detained at the facility—including long-term lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, domestic violence victims, and undocumented parents of U.S. born children—but also about the conditions detainees are forced to endure.

“Detainees described how they were forced to endure verbal—and sometimes physical—abuse by officers, deprived of adequate medical assistance, and denied appropriate access to their immigration attorneys,” said 2L Louize Fiore after her September 2016 visit.

Since President Trump took office, the clinic practitioners have witnessed significant changes at Glades. During a visit in February 2017, together with St. Thomas University School of Law, the dramatic rise in the number of detained immigrants was evident - from under 100 at the Clinic’s first visit of the academic year in September 2016 to over 350 in February 2017.

“Before we got to Glades, we expected to provide ‘Know Your Rights’ presentations to two groups of about 20 detainees before lunchtime, " said 2L Jihan Jude. "Instead, we spent most of the day doing presentations, and the room was packed each time. We had not anticipated the surge of detainees, so we ran out of materials.”

The population at Glades has also changed. For the last several years of the Obama administration, Glades had only housed immigration detainees with criminal convictions, consistent with the administration’s enforcement priorities. Today, Glades holds immigrants who do not have a criminal record or those with only very minor criminal records. In fact, individuals who had been released from detention under the Obama administration and were abiding by the terms of their release are being redetained by the Department of Homeland Security.  One man was separated from his wife and minor children and detained while complying with DHS reporting requirements.

It is confirmed that DHS resumed other practices the Obama administration had significantly reduced, such as stopping and detaining individuals in the community on mere suspicion of being undocumented. The apprehending manner of many of the detainees suggests racial profiling.

“Participating in the Immigration Clinic has afforded me the opportunity to experience first-hand the injustices caused by the change in immigration policy," said 2L Anna Ortega, after the February visit. "At Glades, I spoke with a number of individuals who shared stories of how they were racially profiled or detained while following procedure.”

Since their visit to Glades, the students have felt compelled to respond.  “We want to help spread the word about conditions at Glades, the astounding number of people being held there, and the ways in which immigrants are being apprehended,” said 2L Courtney Burroughs. “We want the public to know about the situation since the detainees have no way to make their stories known or even access legal services.”   

“The situation at Glades brings home the reality of the Trump administration’s immigration policy,” said Clinic Director Rebecca Sharpless. The Clinic—together with other advocates and organizers—must adapt to the sheer scale of the administration’s enforcement actions. I’m inspired by the enthusiasm, drive, and commitment of the Clinic students.”

The Immigration Clinic is part of Miami Law’s Clinical Program in which second- and third-year students represent clients and work on advocacy projects under the supervision of faculty members.