When Alexandra De Leon woke up at 6 a.m., she usually wouldn’t return to the Days Inn in Dilley, Texas until late in the evening.
Most days, she and other volunteers would pull 12-hour days, sometimes forgoing lunch breaks.
De Leon, a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota, was part of a legal team from the Law School’s Center for New Americans, which recently defended women and children who were seeking asylum. A few days before the team arrived, the women and children were detained after a sweep of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
The trip coincided with an influx of migrants from Central America attempting to seek refuge in the U.S. from gang violence and government persecution.
The team, comprised of five University law students and attorneys, traveled from Minnesota to Texas earlier this month to stop the deportation of 12 families from mostly Central American countries, who would have faced immediate harm if deported. They heard stories of women who were raped by smugglers and another who witnessed a pregnant woman being hanged.
“I still think about some of my clients,” De Leon said. “I heard a lot of stories that were about pure human suffering. It was tough.”
The ICE raids resulted in the arrests of 121 families, who were then moved to an immigration detention center in Dilley.
John Bruning, a second-year University law student, said he and other legal volunteers found themselves rushing to get paperwork completed.
“They were going to be deported as soon as ICE could get around to deporting them,” he said. “It was a real tight deadline.”
De Leon said interviews with clients were difficult because asylum seekers often have to recount their stories — often for the first time — so lawyers can file legal claims showing that a return to their home country is dangerous.
Students would typically interview 10 to 15 women a day to prepare their asylum claims.
The team of lawyers and students worked together with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a coalition of immigration lawyers representing detainees in Dilley.
Kate Evans, a teaching fellow at the Law School, said about 1,000 families are held in the detention center.
“There’s an overwhelming number of people detained there,” said first-year law student Mary Georgevich, who attended the weeklong trip.
The students helped detained women understand how the U.S. asylum process works and provided other legal assistance.
Georgevich said some of the women were held captive by a smuggler in Mexico until they agreed to pay more money to cross into the U.S.
“It was energizing to be the first friendly face these people saw and be that comforting voice after sometimes many years of trauma,” said Nadia Anguiano-Wehde, a second-year law student.
In one case, Evans said, the legal team was able to convince the courts to postpone deportation of three families who were already onboard a plane ready to remove them from the U.S.
An increased focus on Central American migrants and the U.S.’ policies toward them has spurred debate over immigration reform.
Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson defended current policies.
“Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values,” Johnson said in a statement.
The ICE raids have also provoked outcry against the federal government’s policies toward Central American women, who advocates and legal experts say are unfairly treated.
In Dilley, immigration officials told women seized in raids earlier this month that they were not entitled to a lawyer, Evans said.
“It was extremely concerning to hear that women were told no one could help,” Evans said.
About two-thirds of immigrant detainees do not receive any legal counsel, according to a 2015 Stanford University Law School report.
The same report also showed that 27 percent of detainees who received legal services were allowed to stay in the country, compared to 7 percent who weren’t represented.
Evans said the team was only able to secure stays claims to stop deportation for about a quarter of the women swept up in the raids. They also worked to ensure their clients received proper medical care and that they were not separated from other family members.
“It was really saddening to think about the people we didn’t reach,” Evans said.
Before a person is granted asylum, they must show they have a credible fear of returning to their country as well as fear of persecution or torture.Damir Utrzan, a doctoral intern in Behavioral Medicine at the University of Minnesota Physicians, said oftentimes, the experience of retelling stories can be traumatizing.
For children, the trauma of being separated from the rest of their families creates long-lasting developmental problems, he said.
“Trauma changes how you see the world and how you see safety,” Utrzan said.
The Center for New Americans — which was founded in 2013 and since has represented cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court — has sent student volunteers to cities near the U.S. border in the past, but this was the first time sending a group to Dilley.
“I do believe that we helped,” Anguiano-Wehde said. “Because of what the volunteers and attorneys did, 33 people didn’t get sent back to what was 100 percent imminent harm.”