Across the country today, there are approximately 55,000 non-citizen immigrants being detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) directorate. A number of those people are in custody in the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center at the Tulsa County Jail. Earlier this summer, the four students who took part in The University of Tulsa College of Law’s Summer Immigrant Rights Project (IRP) met with and provided assistance to some of these detainees.
“This was an intense, six-week legal clinic for the students,” remarked the IRP’s director Mimi Marton. “Among the things they witnessed were young people returned to countries where they have not lived since they were infants. They saw elderly people returned despite living in the U.S. as productive members of society for decades. They encountered people removed and separated from their families for minor offenses, despite having paid their debts to society. And they all had to learn how to deliver bad news to detainees and their families.”
One of the IRP students was rising 3L student MaryJoy Chuba. Herself an immigrant to the United States and now a naturalized citizen, Chuba commented on how “the IRP clinic has done so much for me. One of the major benefits has been to build my self-esteem with regard to public speaking. But beyond that, I learned so many details about the immigration system that I wouldn’t have known about solely from the classroom.”
Fellow student Jared Cannon, who is pursuing a joint JD and MBA degree, echoed Chuba’s words but also underscored the affective dimension: “The experience of going into the jail and meeting with ICE detainees is real – real emotional. The first time I went into the jail I had a little bravado. I was self-confident, and I didn’t expect it to impact me in the ways it did. The experience expands your mind, heart and soul. It’s something you’ll never experience in any other part of your law school life.”
Preparation and deployment
While the IRP experience tested the students’ emotional and professional mettle, the first third of the clinic had introduced them to the critical knowledge and skills to help deal with what they would face during the final four. For two weeks, the students studied immigration law and developed techniques and approaches for interviewing clients.
Beginning in week 3, the students began deploying what they had learned by going into the Moss Criminal Justice Center and holding consultations with ICE detainees. Some of the detainees were local Tulsa residents, while many were from across the U.S. Some people had been detained for traffic violations, others were facing serious criminal charges and a number were recent arrivals seeking asylum in the U.S.
Molly Bryant is a social worker with DVIS and she spends several days a week in the Tulsa County Jail working with asylum seekers detained by ICE. “I feel a sense of calm,” she said, “knowing that TU Law students are available to provide direction to my clients and answer questions that I am ill-equipped to provide.” Bryant underscored the importance of the IRP students’ assistance: “My clients are often extremely isolated at the detention center, and they rarely have the financial means to pay for representation. Many have disregarded the idea that they’d ever find a lawyer they could afford, who would understand their situation and who would really fight for them.”
Consulting, advising, advocating, counseling
Among the IRP students’ main activities at the David L. Moss Center were holding consultations with detainees to understand their individual circumstances, counseling clients on their various options and advocating with ICE officers. According to Marton, “they also had to learn how to respect a client’s decision when such a choice seemed different than one the student him/herself would have made.”
As an example of the latter, Marton points to the fact that several clients asked to be returned to their country of origin – not because that country was safe but because the person could no longer psychologically tolerate being incarcerated. “This was particularly challenging to the students when a client actually qualified for some sort of immigration relief or when a client had been on the receiving end of some less-than-stellar lawyering.” That situation sometimes arose when a criminal defense attorney had failed to advise a client about the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.
“Working in the clinic made me more empathetic,” Cannon said. “But it also gave me a deeper understanding of the current state of immigration, the related laws and the archaic nature of the processes detainees confront.” In terms of skills development, Cannon believes the clinic experience made him a better counselor: “A lawyer is a counselor. But in the classroom, you don’t get to develop that part of the profession. You don’t get the face time with clients that will be necessary in your practice. But you will get it in the IRP, and it will make you a better lawyer.”
Language and lifesaving
Some of the detainees with whom the IRP students consulted spoke English. Most, however, did not. As a result, the students had to learn how to use interpreters when interviewing clients. “This lawyering skill,” Marton emphasized, “takes some sophistication to do successfully.”
“Quite honestly,” commented Bryant, “providing consultations in a client’s native language breaks down their feeling of isolation and begins to heal their souls.”
Linda Allegro was one of the interpreters with whom the students worked at the Tulsa County Jail. In addition to being a Spanish-language interpreter, she is also the project director for New Sanctuary Network | Tulsa. Allegro spoke of how much she enjoyed collaborating with the IRP participants, noting that “it meant the world to the detainees to have a professional and friendly face visit them, listen to their sorrows and offer legal assistance. They were so grateful to know that somebody could advocate or mediate on their behalf.
“Seeing an actual person in a contact visit in the consultation room offered the much-needed human contact and warmth that keeps these men hanging on. I believe that providing them with legal guidance is, quite literally, a lifesaving experience.”
U.S. News & World Report recently ranked TU Law’s clinical education program #74 in the nation. It’s one of the reasons TU Law is a Top 100 law school. If you are contemplating a career as a lawyer, TU Law’s clinics will prepare you with a combination of real-world experience, intensive supervision and dynamic seminars.