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University of Minnesota

Beyond the legalese

March 13, 2009

Three Asylum Law Project members looking at a laptop

First-year University of Minnesota law students Kalli Bennett, Jordan Shepherd, and Christopher Luehr.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

U students aid asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants through the legal process

By Pauline Oo

They meet Mexican families who have been in the United States for years and are now facing exile, Asian and African nationals who have fled persecution from government or rebel groups in their homeland and are now living in limbo, teenagers from Nicaragua who have hiked miles and are now looking at deportation....

Each spring and winter break, members of the University of Minnesota Asylum Law Project (ALP) volunteer across the United States at nonprofit organizations that work with immigrants and people seeking asylum. In addition to helping the attorneys on staff with research and case briefs, the students—all in their first-year at the University of Minnesota Law School—visit immigration detention centers, conduct client interviews, interpret if they have foreign language skills, and attend immigration and juvenile court.

"Most of the time a first-year law student does no practical, legal work," says Jordan Shepherd, ALP president. "Every professor will tell you to just study, study, study; to learn the stuff, because all the basics of that first year you'll use for everything else you do. So, the main draw of ALP for law students is the practical experience their first year."

Law School graduate Emily Good, who now works for the local nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights, trains ALP's members on the basics of asylum law prior to each trip. "So when we go in to help these organizations, we have a little bit of background on what it means to do legal research and legal writing," says Shepherd.

The Asylum Law Project started in 1992 with a small group of University of Minnesota law students traveling to Miami to assist Haitian refugees maneuver the legal process. Over time, the project has grown by leaps and bounds. Membership hovers around 100 this year, and the students can choose to help immigrant advocacy or legal aid offices in one of six cities—El Paso (for three weeks); Miami (three weeks), Minneapolis (two weeks); Las Vegas (two weeks); Florence, Arizona (one week); and Nashville, Tennessee (one week).

Miami was Lauren Henry's choice. The aspiring lawyer flew home to Tampa for the winter holidays then drove south to volunteer at the Human Rights Institute in St. Thomas University.

Miami sounds good in the winter

The Asylum Law Project is looking for former members or Law School alums who are interested in asylum and immigration issues. The group is hosting the ALP Alumni Reception on Thursday, April 16, at 7 p.m. in Auerbach Commons at Mondale Hall.

The reception kicks off the Law School's Alumni Weekend. For more information, call 806-679-2114 or e-mail

"I had an amazing experience there learning about the removal process [of undocumented immigrants] and the different ways to seek asylum," says Henry. "We were asked to write several briefs in addition to our court observing time. The chance to work independently and learn in order to help someone with a specific problem was the best part. In law school we are learning through past problems, but ALP gave me the chance to learn about an issue through the eyes of an actual client and work to solve a legitimate need. I was so much more motivated to find out all I could about the immigration system this way."

The United States has nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants, or foreign-born people who entered the country without proper visas or who were admitted temporarily and stayed past the date they were required to leave. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that two-thirds of this population had been in the U.S. for 10 years or less and approximately 7 million were employed, making up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security, continues to be the leading source of unauthorized immigration (increasing from 4.7 million in 2000 to 7 million or 61 percent in January 2008), followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Honduras. California leads as the state of residence for this population (2.9 million), followed by Texas, Florida, and New York.

"The typical term you hear in the news is 'illegal immigrants,' but 'undocumented' is the terminology that most advocates try to use," says Shepherd, who spent winter break in El Paso with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. "The U.S. code does criminalize people for entering without valid documentation. But there are myriad reasons why somebody would come in to the United States. As an advocate, we have to determine whether they have a valid claim for some form of relief, whether they can be granted asylum.

"So many people get lumped in [to being called a criminal] and get shipped off without any sort of chance to say, 'Wait, wait there's a reason I'm coming here; if you ship me back something bad is going to happen to me,'" he adds.

"The U.S. code does criminalize people for entering without valid documentation," says Shepherd. "But there are myriad reasons why somebody would come in to the United States. As an advocate, we have to determine whether they have a valid claim for some form of relief, whether they can be granted asylum."

Unlike the U.S. Refugee Program, which protects refugees by bringing them to the United States for resettlement, the U.S. Asylum Program offers protection to qualified applicants who are already in the United States or are seeking entry. Asylum seekers are typically those who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Petitions, however, can take more than a year to process and immigration courts do not grant asylum easily.

In January, Shepherd worked on a case in which a Chinese man was seeking asylum. The case is still pending, with a hearing scheduled for April, and the asylum-seeker remains behind lock and key.

"The detention center [I visited] in El Paso was almost like a tent-city on the edge of town. You wouldn't know it was a detention center if you drove pass it," says Shepherd. "It has fences, and there are pictures inside. But it's a detention center. You can't come and go. Your case hasn't been resolve, and you may not be going anywhere soon."

Shepherd says his time with Las Americas fueled his determination to pursue a career in asylum law.

The Asylum Law Project covers about half the cost of any one member's trip, including lodging, through grants and fundraising. (Members are allowed just one trip each year.) Students have to pay for food and transportation to their chosen city.

But no one seems to be complaining.

"All students have the chance to work with practicing attorneys and do legal research," says Christopher Luehr, one of ALP's five vice presidents. "Some are lucky to write briefs that are sent to judges, pending the attorney's approval ... [I joined ALP because] I am interested in assisting foreigners who have made the trip to my home country. I lived in China for a number of years and received help and support from so many people, some of them strangers. In a way, I'm trying to return the favor by helping those who are trying to navigate their way through a legal system that would be intimidating to most U.S. citizens."

More good deeds

Like members of the Asylum Law Project, students across the University of Minnesota are engaged in projects great and small that help a community, from one-time cleanups and weeklong spring-break service trips to regular tutoring sessions and volunteer efforts in far-off countries. Here are some examples:

Students from the School of Architecture are traveling to the Houston area this spring break to help rebuild a home wrecked by Hurricane Ike. Two members of Architecture for Humanity Minnesota will join the group to supervise construction. The trip offers the students career networking opportunities and practical experience with construction, particularly in response to natural disasters.

In May 2008, members of the Global Studies Student Association traveled to Villa de San Antonio, Honduras to help with a variety of projects at an orphanage. Some of the students taught English classes, others organized and created a book checkout system for the library or built tables for a computer lab. This May, the students are returning to help the orphanage with its sustainable-farming activities.

Over spring break, students in the fisheries and wildlife course FW 3565 will learn about the management, conservation, and ecology of Yellowstone National Park. They will interact with managers and researchers from the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Montana Conservation Corps, as well as carry out research projects on topics such as coyote abundance relative to elevation and the effect of elk browsing on aspen regeneration following a fire.

Related Links

Asylum Law Project

Law School