By Thania Lopez JD ’19
From March 9 to March 17, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Arizona with Professors Parker and Abriel, and nine other Santa Clara Law students. We had one goal for our trip: to use every skill we’ve learned whether it be in law school or our personal lives to help immigrants being detained at the border. We didn’t know what to expect, or what would be expected of us, but we knew that we had to do something in light of all the attention immigration has had in the media lately.
Working with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project was an unforgettable and eye-opening experience. Some students had the opportunity to work with children and minors who were separated from their family members. The rest of us worked with the adult team directly on site at the detention facilities. As many of us who have worked with nonprofits know, they are not always able to provide all the services their target clients need due to limited funding. With the Florence Project, we could not provide direct representation to all detainees, but we were able to speak with many of them to help identify if they were eligible for some kind of relief from removal.
Many of the detainees had recently arrived to the U.S. after fleeing their home country, most coming from Central and Latin America. But the most heartbreaking stories, at least in my opinion, were the detainees who had lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years and had been transferred to ICE custody after receiving a minor traffic violation. I met a man at one of the Eloy Detention Centers who had come to the U.S. at age eight, and was now 32 and had been on DACA since the program started in 2012. He told me that he had been pulled over by a police officer for having a broken tail light and was thereafter taken into ICE custody when he couldn’t provide adequate proof of identification. But he was one of the lucky ones. He had a long-time USC girlfriend, whom he never married, and 5 children with her. He had an avenue to adjust his status. When I asked him why he never married her and filed for residency, he told me that he promised himself a long time ago that he would never marry someone to get his papers.
I saw this again during our trip, but this time it was during an immigration judge’s calendar. Another man who was in his early 20’s was being detained at one of the Florence detention centers and was appearing in front of a judge through video teleconferencing. He came to the U.S. at the age of five and had not been back to his country of birth since his family brought him here. Unlike the other detainee, this man did not seem to have an avenue to adjust his status. He had been estranged from his father, who was the only person in his family that had residency in the U.S. Almost immediately, the man told the immigration judge that he wanted to be deported. At least 3 times he told the judge all he wanted was to get out of the detention center, and he knew deportation was his only chance of getting out quickly.
Even though I had the opportunity to see first-hand what these detention centers looked like, I don’t think I can ever imagine what these detainees experience behind the walls of these centers. One of the detainees told me that it had been three days since he had last been outside. Another told me that it had been a week since he was last allowed to use a phone. We were given limited access once in the centers, but I witnessed more than enough to understand why a person would want to be released as soon as possible. As I walked around the detention centers, I saw how the detainees were forced to do labor around the center. I saw men cleaning in the kitchens. I saw men carrying boxes and organizing them in another room. I saw men being yelled at by guards and treated as though they were not real people. I tried to imagine what it would be like spending months, even years, in one of these centers, not knowing if I’d ever be released.
What I learned, and I hope that you all take away from these stories, is that there are people out there, waiting for laws to change, waiting for society to change so that they may be accepted. But the process of lawmaking is slow and unreliable. So we must do what we can to help those that are in need. In many areas of law, there will always be clients who do not understand their rights or who do not have access to legal representation—maybe due to economic reasons, or simply because they are afraid to seek help. As lawyers, it is our duty to try and level the playing field in a court of law. We should be fierce and zealous in our advocacy because often times, the clients who need our help most are the clients who are most disadvantaged in every possible way.
As Spider-man once said to Tony Stark, “when you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” With great power comes great responsibility. With our degrees, we are being given great powers. Powers to represent others, powers to advocate for their rights, and powers to stand up against injustice that the rest of society might not see. So as we celebrate our great accomplishment of becoming social justice advocates this weekend, let us remember that there will always be a group of people in this world that need our help. And it is our responsibility to make sure the most disadvantaged and underrepresented communities have the same advantages and disadvantages as their counterparts.
Thania Lopez JD ’19 graduated from San Francisco State University in 2014 with a double major in political science and economics. More on Thania: https://socialjusticecollaborative.org/project/thania-lopez/
The Border Immersion trip was made possible by generous contributions from Santa Clara Law donors. To learn more about how to support initiatives like this and other impactful programs please visit law.scu.edu/giving.