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Immigration Law Student action

The defenders

Behind the heavily secured walls of a Louisiana detention center, Loyola students navigated the complexities of immigration law to help people facing deportation

Patricia Martin’s research and planning could only prepare her so much for the trip she was about to take. Along with seven of her classmates from Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law, the second-year law student had hopped a Sunday morning flight to New Orleans, then jumped into a rental car and drove three hours to Alexandria, Louisiana, a small city in the swampy center of the state. Following an anxious night of sleep in a motel she described as “humble,” Martin rode another 40 miles northeast, winding through the spindly pine trees and gothic bogs of the Kisatchie National Forest. 

Her final destination was Jena, a town of 3,382 in LaSalle Parish, nestled along the Kisatchie. Jena’s median family income sits below $40,000. Porches are often buckled, shrubs and kudzu overgrown. Off the road, one sign implored her to “Keep Calm and Eat More Catfish.” A Confederate flag hung outside a nearby junk shop, pressed and clean.

Shortly before, one of Martin’s friends had flown 17 hours to Thailand for their Spring Break. A second was jetting down to Naples, Florida—Martin’s hometown—in search of sun and seafood. Others decided to hang around Chicago, catching up on reading or sleep; it had already been a hectic semester. Demanding assignments were something most Loyola law students were understandably hoping to avoid.

Martin had other ideas. Her carpool parked outside Jena’s largest employer, the LaSalle ICE Processing Center. It’s a labyrinth cement facility enveloped by rows of steel fencing and coiled barbed wire. A giant Department of Homeland Security (DHS) crest is plastered on the front wall. To gain entry, Martin’s name had been added to a pre-approved list. Along with a few of her colleagues, she handed over her driver’s license and passed through a TSA-style security checkpoint. From there, she was buzzed through a series of locked gates and escorted into a cramped, partitioned room. 

The walls were stark-white, almost oppressively so. It was here, on the other side of a glass window and a long way from home, where Martin met immigrants of all stripes—potential legal clients detained indefinitely by the federal government. Their status in the United States was very much in jeopardy. Most were desperate for clarity. And so they started to talk, attempting to sort out exactly how they landed in detention and how their precarious lives might proceed. Martin sat patiently, confident in her legal preparation if unnerved by the intensity of her new surroundings. She took some deep breaths, listened, and started to jot down notes.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the law enforcement agency within DHS, is currently detaining more than 50,000 people in the United States, the highest number in American history. While cases crawl through the suddenly bloated legal system, those accused of both entering and living in the country without authorization are initially housed in detention centers like LaSalle—facilities, run by the government or an outsourced private contractor, that function like prisons in everything but name. Of the country’s 200 or so operational immigrant detention centers, most are located in remote towns like Jena, communities where both jobs and legal resources are scarce. Phone calls from inside can be expensive. Basics like food and water or medical care vary in quality. Law libraries, if they exist at all, don’t always stock up-to-date materials. It’s a practically impossible environment in which to defend yourself.

Detainees are not guaranteed government-appointed legal representation to guide them through these complicated removal proceedings. Under U.S. law, immigration is treated as a civil matter. These are not criminal cases with due process rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution, though the stakes are often as high. Every judicial decision can lead to a deportation, after all, sending families into financial and emotional upheaval.

Those who manage to identify and/or pay for private counsel count themselves among the fortunate; studies have shown that immigrants with access to an attorney are 10 times more likely to receive immigration relief than those without. For the rest, who might have a convincing argument to stay but who must prove it? The people filing baroque paperwork in a language that’s typically not their first? “There are no immigration attorneys: stop, period,” said Priscilla Orta-Wenner, an adjunct professor in the School of Law. “Those that are available are hours away, only speak English, and charge like $10,000—things that, for most detainees, are completely unreachable.”

Of the 1,200 adults held at LaSalle, a startling 94 percent pursued their own claims without an attorney as recently as 2017. The stats are comparable in similar facilities throughout the country. Since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and prioritized immigration enforcement to a degree unseen in modern history, these trends have only intensified. Immediately after taking office, President Trump issued an executive order broadening the types of immigrants considered priority targets for ICE officers. “Administrative” arrests, in turn, have risen 44 percent. The upshot is that anyone unauthorized to be here can be tossed into detention at any time, even if they might have a legal claim to stay.


Migrants detained in U.S. as of April 2019


congressionally mandated maximum number of detainees

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Driven to act

Samantha Schatko, another 2L student at Loyola, was floored when the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum-seekers exploded into a national crisis in the spring of 2018. While her classmates were busy applying for spots on moot court and mock trial, extracurriculars that have traditionally looked appealing on a legal resume, Schatko’s attention kept drifting back to the news, and to the images of screaming toddlers at the southern border. “It’s hard not to be affected by that,” she said recently.

There’d been a noticeable uptick in interest around the subject at the School of Law because of its political salience. Maggie Meza, a 3L and former intern at the National Immigrant Justice Center, had resurrected the Immigrant Rights Coalition, a student group focused on promoting the rights of immigrants. She’d also enrolled in the school’s Immigration Law Practicum, a new semester-long class offered both in fall and spring. The law school, meanwhile, was in the process of absorbing the Center for the Human Rights of Children, run by immigration expert Katherine Kaufka Walts, its hard-charging director of nearly a decade.

But as Schatko and Martin saw it, opportunities for pro-bono student immersion were scarce. The duo envisioned a week-long excursion “in line with Loyola’s Jesuit mission of social justice,” according to Martin. “We wanted to make it open to anybody who was interested in immigration law or saw what was going on, was moved by it, and wanted to get their hands dirty.”

Finding the right mix of volunteers (especially Spanish speakers) was critical. So was pinpointing the best nonprofit organization with whom to partner. In the fall of 2018, Schatko and Martin began the long and careful process of planning their project. First, they hosted information sessions on campus to spread the word. Then they solicited applications; two dozen came in. After interviews, Martin and Schatko ultimately selected six fellow law students to join them.

Orta-Wenner, meanwhile, put the organizers in touch with folks she knew at the Southern Poverty Law Center. A year prior, the renowned civil rights organization had launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), an effort to provide free legal representation for people detained across the Southeast. The group’s office was based in Alexandria, close to LaSalle and a slightly smaller (though still sizable) ICE-operated center named Pine Prairie. SIFI was staffed by five young and hungry attorneys. “We were excited about this particular organization,” Kaufka Walts said, “because not too many people go all the way down there, and because these are hugefacilities with detainees that need all the assistance they can get.”

While the students were prepared to pay their own way, Kaufka Walts collaborated with the School of Law to create a crowdfunding page, which generated close to $7,000 in donations in a few short weeks. They’d clearly struck a nerve. And with that, Loyola’s Immigrant Detention Project was born.


of detainees at LaSalle pursued their own claims without legal counsel


of detainees tend to win their cases without having a lawyer

Each of the eight Loyola students who journeyed southward had distinct motives. Some, like Schatko, were compelled by the unfolding emergency at the border. Others felt more personally invested. Meza’s father is an immigrant, as is her step-mom and step-sister; she’d already decided to pursue immigration law after graduation. Martin’s family moved to the States from Spain when she was 4 years old. Despite the fact that her parents are physicians who came on work visas, she remembers their difficulty navigating the bureaucracy and assimilating into a new culture. Later, as an adult, Martin married a man originally from Scotland. “Immigration,” she said, “has shaped our whole lives.”

The group’s collective experience with immigrant clients, however, was modest. Madison Heckel, a 1L, had written precisely two legal papers before she boarded her flight to New Orleans. A handful of others had role-played in the law practicum or had worked in clinics (child law, domestic violence) whose populations included foreigners. Prior to law school, a few had some immigration law experience and others had jobs working with vulnerable populations. Immigration law, though, is notoriously convoluted and rapidly shifting under the current administration. And in settings like detention, trauma is commonplace.

One in six ICE detainees are housed in Louisiana. SIFI’s legal database, not surprisingly, is flooded with cases. When volunteer groups pass through Alexandria, SIFI presents them with assignments—client intake interviews, data entry, document collection, bond motion preparation—that, on their face, lack glamour. That doesn't mean they aren’t crucial in keeping the office afloat. The bond work is especially significant. Immigrants who post bond can reunite with their family while their merit case is pending and can build that case without serious restrictions. To obtain a temporary release, an immigrant must prove they are not a threat to their community or to national security, nor that they are a flight risk. Judges have broad discretion. There are currently 800,000 pending cases nationally; each takes an average of 700 days to process. Bail, in other words, could mean 24 months of moderate freedom.

The day before they were to leave, the students attended a half-day orientation crash-course at the Corboy Law Center organized by Kaufka Walts: a brief history of American immigration policies, an overview of current detention policies, background on trauma-informed interviewing. Upon their arrival in Louisiana, the SIFI staff welcomed their new partners at their office, a rollicking old house with legal pads strewn about, and answered any nagging questions. Then everyone got down to business.

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Meeting face-to-face

Each day started early, usually with a 7 a.m. wakeup call. They’d peruse their motel’s breakfast spread before driving either to the SIFI headquarters or to an ICE center. The office-bound gathered around an oval conference table and waited for instructions. Sometimes they’d catalog paperwork that was disorganized or collect evidence from a client’s family, anything that could be useful in establishing sound character and American ties. Other times, they’d research the conditions of whatever country a given migrant had fled. They even drafted bond motions on their own. The steady volume of cases required students to churn-and-burn, as best they could. “It was all hands-on-deck,” Schatko said.

Their duties in detention were altogether different. Those consisted mainly of client intake interviews, each 60 minutes long, in which a pair of students would sit opposite a given detainee and collect as much biographical information as possible, so SIFI could later assess the validity of the prospective case. Most people inside were Spanish speakers from Mexico or Central America, for which translation was imperative. While inside, the students also observed bond hearings, held in court rooms attached to the actual centers themselves. Checklists in hand, they kept an eye out for any impropriety exhibited by the prosecuting attorneys or the sitting judges. “The hardest days for me were in court,” Martin said. “They bring people in wearing shackles on their feet and hands and around their waist. It’s dehumanizing.”

Deportation defense can be logistically challenging for seasoned pros, much less relative rookies. During intake interviews at LaSalle, lawyers and detainees are separated by a thick plane of glass, which makes it tricky to communicate. There’s a slit at the bottom, but it’s only thick enough to slide through a sleeve of papers. Telephone calls must be arranged days in advance. Health care is spotty; a mumps and measles outbreak spread across Pine Prairie in March, prompting an unfortunately timed quarantine.

In a region as culturally conservative as central Louisiana, simply performing legal work on behalf of immigrants carries its own risks, too. (Orta-Wenner, who accompanied the students on the trip, described it as a “hostile environment.”) SIFI doesn’t list its address or its direct phone number publicly; the office is outfitted with mounted security cameras, and the blinds are periodically drawn for privacy. In Alexandria, the students were warned not to disclose their intentions with strangers, which led to at least one awkward exchange with their motel’s genial front desk clerk. Schatko, generally an extrovert, felt strangely self-conscious: “We stuck out majorly.”

That vulnerability didn’t subside when the students slipped behind ICE’s barbed wire fencing. For some, it was literally the first time they’d interacted directly with a person in custody. In jumpsuits and cuffs, the detainees would share harrowing stories, of violence and poverty and political persecution. One Nicaraguan had been beaten by police at an anti-government protest. A Mexican woman yanked out a news clipping of a dead body; she said her ex-husband had murdered seven of her family members. A teenager from Bangladesh, who’d traveled halfway around the globe fearing for his safety and had presented himself at the U.S. border, begged a judge for mercy. Then there were folks picked up by ICE because of a mistaken identity, who had lived in the country peacefully for years, whose children were American-born, whose bosses and clergymen vouched for their decency. They, too, were routed through the system like common criminals, confused about their options and anxious about their future.

In stretches, the pressure and grief felt acutely taxing. “It’s bleak, you know? When they haven’t done anything to warrant the way they are being handled?” Schatko said. “I wasn’t expecting to have such an emotional, visceral reaction.” According to Martin, “everything felt high-stakes, all week.” To their credit, the students fed off that energy. Without complaint, they’d slip on their blazers and slacks each morning and put in focused, lengthy days. “Honestly, I was floored,” said Orta-Wenner. “The caliber of the writing, the passion behind the representation. I could not believe the dedication.”

By Friday afternoon, when the group packed their bags and started their journey home, they’d completed 20 client intakes and filed five full bond motions, on top of the court watching and administrative work that SIFI needed tending. Their hosts were thrilled with the thoroughness of the research and the students’ sensitivity in detention, and have already invited Loyola to continue its volunteer efforts remotely and return to Louisiana in 2020. Orta-Wenner—who holds two Ivy League degrees and has practiced immigration law for nearly a decade—would feel “completely comfortable” having any of the volunteers filing bond motions on their own, with mild supervision. “And I’m not loosey-goosey with things like that.”


deportation cases pending nationally


days is the average time to process an individual case

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These are people who are running from poverty or violence ... or they’re trying to be reunified with their families. They are honestly just looking for a better life.”
— Loyola law student Patricia Martin

Before they left, Orta-Wenner stressed to her students the importance of bearing witness. Yes, the practical experience they gained was valuable; one 3L was even convinced to apply for a full-time job with the Southern Poverty Law Center. But simply observing up-close the obstacles these immigrants face had value on its own. “I hesitate using words like great or exciting or anything like that, just because of the situation the people are in,” Schatko said. “But from a learning standpoint, to see what we saw? It was wonderful.” These Loyolans traveled to the frontier, a slice of the world that demands attention. They forfeited a week of relaxation for a week of stress and soul-searching. They acted like men and women for others, in true Jesuit tradition.

At the same time, Martin and her classmates couldn’t help but feel hamstrung by the time constraints they were under and the overwhelming need for the expertise they were learning to provide. It “absolutely destroyed” Orta-Wenner to see how many winnable cases exist in places like Jena, if a sufficient number of immigrants had access to competent and affordable representation. “These are people who are running from poverty or violence or they might have been persecuted in their countries or they’re trying to be reunified with their families. They are honestly just looking for a better life. And we’re helping them get bond,” Martin said. “After that? They could still get deported.”

On a rare off-day, less than a week after she got back from Louisiana, Martin walked into a Logan Square coffee shop and ordered a frothy hot chocolate. A pin—“Build Bridges, Not Walls”—was affixed to her backpack. She was cheery and polite, but also bone tired. She’d only had 36 hours at home to catch her breath before classes restarted. The shock of Louisiana was front of mind. “When you come back,” Martin said, “everything weighs down on you.”

Those feelings haven’t stopped the Immigrant Detention Project from laying the groundwork for a similar endeavor next spring: the participants would like to make this an annual pro-bono opportunity. Maybe they could lock in permanent funding or tie in a classroom component. Maybe they could visit a different detention center closer to the border. There’s time to hash out the details; demand for their legal support will not wane in the intervening months.

The trip wasn’t all doom and gloom, either. Each night, the students found somewhere new in Alexandria to eat, be it a barbecue shack or a taco truck or a Dairy Queen. (One of the detention center guards was surprisingly helpful with culinary recommendations.) They met the SIFI staffers for a social gathering after a long day’s work; a client out on bond joined them. They munched on beignets in New Orleans before their return flight. And on one of their last nights in Louisiana, they found an Alexandria bar where they sang karaoke.

It was still Spring Break. They had plenty of steam to blow off.

Support the project

Loyola law students plan to keep the Immigrant Detention Project going so that they can continue providing critical legal services to detained immigrants. Donations to the project will help students fund the cost of future trips to various sites in the United States. Donate now