Understanding Asylum Outside the Law Classroom

Teresa Flores is a third-year law student at the Saint Louis University School of Law, and is the upcoming Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion for the Student Bar Association. She was a part of the class, Removal Defense Project: Sheltering Vulnerable Immigrant Children and Families, taught by St. Francis Community Services Immigration Law Project Attorney Kristine Walentik and board member Kenneth Schmitt. The following is her reflection on the class’s trip to San Antonio where she, fellow students, and St. Francis Community Services staff members provided direct assistance to asylum seekers and also witnessed the injustices of the asylum process.

Understanding Asylum Outside the Law Classroom

This trip and the class truly meant a lot to me. I know that for the rest of my life I will look back at this moment and know that it made a difference in the type of lawyer I want to be. Law school is incredibly challenging and it is easy at times to forget why I even came here in the first place. Through working directly with clients and meeting attorneys who are working together to defend the rights of immigrants, this trip reminded me that I came to law school to work with communities most in need of legal representation. I would recommend this class to anyone who is interested in practicing immigration law or even understanding what immigration law is.

I came to law school because I wanted to be an immigration attorney, and because I want to help the migrant community and try to make sense of these laws that dictate who is deserving or not of the protections of the United States. My parents are both immigrants and had very different experiences navigating through the immigration system. My father came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 18 years old and qualified for amnesty under the Reagan administration. My mother came to the U.S. from the Philippines through a family petition when she was 6 years old. I grew up with friends, neighbors and co-workers that were undocumented and knew the struggles they faced. I also volunteered as a child advocate with the Young Center where I would visit unaccompanied minors that were placed in shelters. I always wished I could do more and every time a child would ask me why he was detained and why the laws were the way they were, I never knew what to say.

A Well-Rounded View

This trip to San Antonio provided us with a well-rounded view of all the pieces that go into what immigrants will encounter once they enter the United States. Since we are located in the Midwest, we are not as familiar with the challenges that many migrants face in the earliest stages of their journey to the United States. This includes presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents to ask for asylum, being held in detention centers, and attempting to navigate traveling to cities where they have family. It was important to see the process migrants endure just after entering the United States so we can understand where our clients are coming from and the difficult journey they face.

The best experience I had on the trip was at the San Antonio bus station where we worked with Raices, the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas, to help provide quick legal orientations to migrants who were in commute to their intended destinations in the United States. While we were in San Antonio, several hundred individuals were arriving each day at the Greyhound bus station in downtown San Antonio, which is where migrants are released after leaving detention or being paroled into the United States after presenting themselves to agents at the U.S./Mexico border. Once asylum-seekers arrived at the bus station, we met them to explain when their first court date would be, numbers they could call for help in their new cities, and what their rights are in the United States.

Asylum Work: Connecting the Law, Compassion, and Resources

As law students we are focused on reading cases and statutes to know what the law is, but we do not get much or any face-to-face experience with clients. This experience showed us the chaotic and unpredictable nature of immigration law, especially because there are new memorandums that are continuously creating new legal obstacles for immigrants. While our specific role was to assist in providing brief and quick legal orientations to ensure that individuals were aware of their rights and obligations, our work was only a small part of everything that the bus station sought to provide. For starters, when migrants arrive to the bus station the San Antonio Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC) greets them and checks to see whether they are trying to catch a connecting bus or if they need help purchasing a bus ticket to their final destination. The IWC then provides a brief assessment of the individuals and if they have time then they direct them to the Welcome Center, across the street, where migrants could get some food and a change of clothes. The IWC also provided backpacks filled with snacks, a stuffed animal, and a dictionary for parents that were traveling with their small children.

As law students we are told to focus on the law and to help our clients navigate the legal system, but this experience showed us that as future attorneys we would need the assistance of social workers and counselors to adequately assist our clients. During a dinner with staff members from American Gateways, an organization dedicated to providing legal support to immigrants and refugees in Texas, one of the attorneys shared with us that their experience often involves getting together with other staff members to perform triage on a particular situation. The attorney shared with us the story of a tractor unit that had been abandoned in a Walmart parking lot during the summer. When the authorities discovered the unit and opened it, they a group of thirty-nine migrants in the unit. Eight of the migrants who died due to the heat and asphyxiation. The staff at American Gateways came together to see what issues they would need to address first.

The obvious would be that these migrants would need legal counsel, but they would also need help from social workers because of the trauma the migrants had experienced. They would also most likely need help with finding a place to stay and being connected with any family members that they have in the U.S. This was just one example of how lawyers, social workers and community activists would come together to provide assistance. They explained that there would be times where you have a client that you are representing in legal matters but there are also other concerns and issues where they need assistance. It is during these times where we would need the assistance of social workers and counselors to help our clients wherever they need assistance the most.