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Law school students and staff spend spring break helping detained immigrants win asylum

Detention Center

Folkston, GA

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Volunteer

A group of faculty, staff members and students at UNC School of Law, part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, volunteered during spring break for the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast.

The students spent a week helping detained immigrants at Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, Georgia, with their asylum cases.

These are their thoughts on the experience.

Learning ‘in the trenches’ with detained asylum seekers

Spending a week “in the trenches” on behalf of asylum seekers who have been detained in rural Georgia was an experience I will take with me throughout my entire career. Frankly, it is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Many times, while talking to SIFI’s clients, I had to remind myself just exactly what was happening: Strangers I had met mere minutes ago were divulging incredible fears to me, hoping that by some miracle I could free them.

The week made me ever so slightly more acquainted with liberty, allowing me to speak with men who were being held captive. Overall, the experience made me a better citizen, and will make me a better lawyer.

— Ben Williams, Class of 2018

‘Eye-opening’ experience at detention prison inspires law student

My week with SIFI in Folkston was heartbreaking and eye-opening. All of the immigrants with whom I spoke have a credible fear of returning to their countries. They have made harrowing, dangerous journeys to join their families and live in the safety they all deserve.

Immigration prisons exact an enormous emotional toll, and they make it nearly impossible for prisoners to find legal representation for their asylum cases. SIFI is a glimmer of hope. The staff and volunteers are dedicated and smart, and they are doing everything they can to get detained immigrants released. It was an inspiration to work alongside them, and I hope to keep supporting them from afar!

— Rachel Geissler, Class of 2020

Trying to find ‘comforting words’ for a detained immigrant

Upon entering law school, I admittedly had no interest in doing anything concerning immigration law. However, through pro bono, I had the opportunity to learn through experience. The week I spent in Georgia, working with SIFI and the detainees, was enlightening and humbling. It was also emotionally and mentally tolling. I was only there for a week, but hearing the despairing stories of detainees really gave me a new perspective on the world and, specifically, the immigration system.

I will never forget the moment when – for the first time – a young, wide-eyed detainee came to the harsh realization that what was happening to him, and to all the other asylum seekers, was not fair. I was silent in that moment, trying to find comforting words. But the attorney in the room with me, while sympathetic, firmly said, “It isn’t fair.” While reality is harsh and can leave you feeling powerless, I found hope and strength in the resilience of the detainees, the vigor of the SIFI team, and the humanity of the other UNC law students who dedicated their spring break to noble but gut-wrenching work.

— Rana Odeh, Class of 2019

Seasoned attorney gains deeper understanding of U.S. immigration system

Spending spring break with SIFI was a tremendous experience for me, both as a law school administrator and as an individual. Over the course of a week, I had the opportunity to watch our law students build skills for practice, and fuel their passion for serving others. 

In law school, student interactions with clients are often limited to summer internships and clinics. But in one week with SIFI, students learned how to navigate client interviews about difficult subjects, gather documents from a wide range of sources, and draft requests for parole. They came back to school as more experienced advocates, invigorated social justice warriors, and more thoughtful human beings. 

Volunteering with SIFI wasn’t just a good experience for the students. Even though I am a seasoned attorney, the trip made a lasting impression on me, too. While I typically fill the role of administrator and facilitator for pro bono projects, I had the opportunity to participate in our group’s work with SIFI. I met with clients desperate for relief who were also kind, patient, and understanding at the same time.

Even without a background in immigration law, I was able to think critically about each client’s parole or bond potential, and attempt to channel the heartache, pain, and loss that clients had experienced into compelling arguments for the court. 

From the college student who was picked up for loitering on a private beach after living in the U.S. for many years, to the political prisoners constantly fighting for their lives on their journey here, only to be detained, I have a new understanding of our current immigration system. I also have a deeper appreciation for the work that SIFI and others are doing to help. 

— Allison Standard, director of pro bono initiatives, UNC School of Law