SFCS and SLU Law Partner to Train a New Generation of Attorneys

When Lena Salameh thinks about individuals seeking asylum and relief from deportation, she says, “I often think of the poem by Warsan Shire, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” She describes her own family’s journey of immigration – her dad immigrated when he was 23 from Palestine – expressing that she understands what it means to live in fear through visits to her family’s home. “When you’ve lived in a warzone you have a better understanding of what it means to live in fear or not know where you will get water for several weeks,” she says.  

Salameh and 9 other Saint Louis University School of Law Students are enrolled in the Spring 2019 class, Removal Defense Project: Sheltering Vulnerable Immigrant Children and Families. St. Francis Community Services (SFCS) and the Saint Louis University School of Law are co-sponsoring the class, with SFCS Immigration Law Project attorney Kristine Walentik and board member Kenneth Schmitt instructing.

The class addresses student demand for an understanding of how to defend immigrants faced with deportation proceedings, especially those with strong family ties to the United States. Due to generous funding by the Daughters of Charity of St. Louis, the class will be able to travel to San Antonio in April. Through meeting with many service providers and working with newly arrived asylum seekers, staff from St. Francis Community Services and the students will connect their direct work with clients to the larger struggle for immigration justice.

Training a New Generation of Lawyers

“This class allows St. Francis Community Services to engage in the work core to our mission. We are able to advocate for just responses to immigration and poverty, in addition to helping law students understand the effects of current immigration policies on migrants and asylum seekers.”

– Amy Diemer, Managing Attorney at the St. Francis Community Services Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry

Students say the class is equipping them with more specific knowledge on the kinds of defenses to removal and the particular statues lawyers can use to defend their clients from deportation. Schmitt and Walentik have over 15 years of experience in immigration law between them, giving the students profound perspective on both current policies and changes in those policies over time.

Jose Claro, another student in the class, says that his main objective in law school is to understand “how I can help families stay together,” borne out of his own family’s history emigrating from Mexico in the early 1990s. “Growing up in Southern California I understand the fear of separation of families by deportation,” he says. The knowledge gained in the class will assist them in keeping communities together in their future careers.

Both Salameh and Claro are third year law students, and plan to continue in immigration law after graduating. They are particularly interested in assisting refugees and unaccompanied minors start a new life in the United States.

Adding Mental Health into the Picture

“As a therapist, I didn’t think I would have to learn so much about law, but to be an effective therapist I have to. It’s the same with these law students.”

– Martha Piñones, St. Francis Community Services Bilingual Therapist

Although lawyers consistently work with individuals experiencing trauma, their studies are rarely infused with an understanding of that trauma and how it affects clients. Due to this, two SFCS bilingual therapists are working with the class to equip students with best practices on how to work with individuals experiencing severe trauma.

Martha Piñones, one of the bilingual therapists at St. Francis Community Services Southside, says she is motivated to teach the students due to this necessary overlap in mental health and law. She says, “Mental health is often overlooked in these types of situations. It’s important to see how interwoven metal health and the law are, especially in immigration.”

Piñones argues that lawyers must have an understanding of mental health both to not re-traumatize their clients and to avoid experiencing vicarious trauma as much as possible. “As a therapist, I didn’t think I would have to learn so much about law, but to be an effective therapist I have to. It’s the same with these law students.”

About St. Francis Community Services’ Immigration Law Project

Last year, St. Francis Community Services’ Immigration Law Project represented 1,043 individual clients in all types of immigration cases. The project represented 181 asylum seekers.

More about the Immigration Law Project at St. Francis Community Services.