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TU Law students support immigrants seeking asylum in Texas

A team of 16 TU law and psychology students traveled to Karnes City, Texas, this summer to help provide legal support to women and children seeking asylum in the United States.

The Karnes City family detention center, which detains women and children seeking asylum in the U.S., can best be described as chaotic. A coordinated effort between GEO, the private prison company that owns the detention center, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the detention center at Karnes City is a stressful first step to seeking asylum.

The team from The University of Tulsa — clinical law Professor Mimi Marton; psychology Professor Elana Newman; psychology doctoral student Chelsea Shotwell Tabke; the legal fellow for the Tulsa Immigrant Resource Network, Robin Sherman; 16 law students; and three law students that were originally assigned as interpreters — went on the service-learning trip to provide legal assistance to the women detained there.

The Credible Fear Interview

In Karnes, the students prepared the female detainees for their Credible Fear Interview (CFI). A CFI is a first-screening to determine whether a detainee will be able to present a viable asylum case in U.S. immigration court. To pass the screening, a woman must prove that she has a credible fear of being sent back to her country. If she doesn’t pass the screening, she can have a CFI review by an immigration judge, but if she still doesn’t pass, then she is likely to be deported.

The CFI requires one to relive horrendous encounters. Clients hailed from all over the world but mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The students learned that one of the biggest factors driving these families out of their countries was incredible gang violence. “These are countries in which, as one woman from El Salvador told us, ‘The gangs control my country,’ and that is really true from the top government position down to the local police force,” said Marton. The other common problem they saw was women fleeing domestic violence, where they reported that there was no mechanism in their country through which they could seek protection from their abuser.

In addition to preparing clients for the CFI, the TU team also conducted intake interviews with women who had just arrived in Karnes, prepared advocacy briefs, searched for sponsors to whom the families could be released, and led informational sessions on the next steps after release from the detention center. By the end of their five days, they had served more than 200 detainees.

Dealing with the trauma

Interviewing traumatized clients can be hard and emotional work, which is why TU’s Psychology Department was included. Newman and Tabke were responsible for providing psychological support for both the clients and the TU team. Some of their everyday tasks included assisting the law students in conducting trauma-informed interviews, providing crisis intervention for distressed clients and helping mitigate the legal team’s vicarious traumatization. “Most lawyers are trained to work with clients who are more advantaged, and not who are in captivity,” said Newman on training the law students for the interviews.

Stephen Yoder, one of the law students who went on the trip, said the most challenging part of being in Karnes City was hearing the stories. “These women and children had faced a lot of abuse or a lot of legitimate fear in their home countries,” he said. “It really took a toll on us as a group.”

Marton points out that these experiences are necessary to teach the students the importance of pro bono legal work. “Oftentimes the idea of giving back gets lost in the busy day of a lawyer,” said Marton. “This project highlighted two issues: one, some of the massive injustices that we see in immigration law today; and two, the important role that lawyers can play in resolving those injustices.”

The importance of Karnes City experience

Trips like the one to Karnes City are invaluable to students.

“Something that I think maybe I didn’t do enough while I was in law school was actually getting real-life client interviewing experience,” Sherman said. Interviewing clients like the ones in the Karnes City family detention center gives students the perspective that these people are more than just legal cases. “If you don’t work with the non-legal issues that your client presents, you won’t be successful at the legal representation. It really is opening their eyes beyond the silo of being a lawyer and how important it is to gain other skills,” said Marton.

Law student Jose Gonzalez found something more than just legal experience. “I learned compassion and empathy. I learned that everyone is a real person and that they have real emotions, that they went through very, very hard things in their lives and they’re just trying to find some help,” he said.

TU will be returning to Karnes City Detention Center in the future under the program with RAICES. To learn more about TU Law’s Immigrant Rights Project, click here.