A deep commitment to helping immigrants

The policies may have shifted, but the work at detention centers continues

A deep commitment to helping immigrants

Credit: Wikimedia Commons Karnes Detention Center

While the Trump administration’s family separation practices have marked a shift in U.S. immigration policy, the issues surrounding immigration are not new. Many HLS alumni and students are engaged in legal and advocacy work related to immigration, including the situations of refugees and asylum seekers. For some of these lawyers, this interest predates their time at HLS, but has dovetailed with their coursework and hands-on learning during their time as law students.

“I taught English as a second language to refugee students before coming to law school,” says Emma Rekart ’17, now a staff attorney at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which works with detainees at four centers in Washington State. “That’s what got me interested in immigration work.”

Rekart and her colleagues help screen recent immigrants who have been detained and are seeking a hearing, either representing them directly or referring them to other attorneys. They give legal orientation presentations and “know your rights” trainings to aid clients in understanding the U.S. legal system. Their work, recently, has included some clients who have been separated from their children under the new policies.

“Our organization now has a bond fund, because there’s been so much interest in this issue,” Rekart explains. “Some of our clients are released on bond, but some will remain detained for the whole of their cases.”

Reuniting families often means one thing on paper and another in reality. Rekart represented one mother who had come to the U.S. with her young son, from whom she was separated at the border. The mother was denied release on bond, and her child was placed with his father, whom he had not previously met. Although the child is being cared for by family members, he is still separated from his mother, whose case may linger for months.

“You either have too much time to prepare a case like this or no time at all,” Rekart says, noting that detained and non-detained clients’ cases often move at quite different speeds. The likelihood of a client being released on bond can also depend on the presiding judge, making it difficult to predict the outcomes even of cases that are quite similar.

As a law student, Rekart worked with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC). She also participated in the school’s crimmigration work, which explores the intersection of criminal and immigration law. This program has sparked or helped strengthen an interest in immigration issues for many students, including Josephine Herman ’20, who spent this summer working as an intern with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in the San Antonio area.

“I wanted to do something client-focused this summer,” explains Herman, who worked with survivors of gender-based violence in Guatemala before coming to HLS. “I have family connections to immigrants from Central America, and I wanted to work with people facing these issues.” Herman’s work with HIRC in Cambridge led to a connection with RAICES, where she worked with detainees being held in Karnes City, Texas. Many of Herman’s clients were fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse in Central America.

“I represented a couple of clients directly in their hearings with immigration judges,” Herman says. “If the immigration judge did not find that they had credible fear, we would help them petition for reinterview or reconsideration.”

The center’s population included (at various times) recently arrived mothers with their minor children, adult women traveling alone, and men traveling with their children. Herman helped her clients navigate the asylum process, answering questions and helping them prepare for credible fear interviews. She worked with fellow law students, attorneys offering their pro bono services and a rotating cast of volunteers, who pitched in to help with paperwork and other projects.

“Everyone I met treated their clients with such respect,” Herman says of her time with RAICES. “It’s exhausting, necessary work, and there’s so much need. I appreciated the commitment of people who were there day in and day out.”

Rekart agrees. “There’s a long list of attorneys who are willing to help,” she says.