Miami Heat: Field Notes from Immigration Spring Break
Within ten minutes after reporting for work, we were busily racing through the streets of downtown Miami, struggling to keep up with Brother Mike, a grey-haired monk from North Dakota who was our supervisor for the week. We cut through parking lots and a hotel lobby before reaching the immigration court for our first individual hearing. Twenty minutes later we witnessed the judge grant the respondent’s petition for adjustment of status, allowing him to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Thus began spring break 2012.
The ten of us who volunteered for immigration spring break in Miami spent the rest of the week performing legal work at either Catholic Charities Legal Services or Voices for Immigrant Defense and Advocacy (VIDA). We conducted legal research, wrote memos, filed motions, interviewed clients, attended adjustment of status hearings, and spoke with legal professionals about U.S. immigration policy.
“It’s a nice change from, ‘read this case, brief it, (and) explain the situation to the professor,’” said John Wendell, one of the volunteers at VIDA. “This is putting all of that stuff to work and actually finding out why it’s worth it.”
While at VIDA, Wendell was assigned to help a teenage immigrant who was the victim of a sexual assault and subsequently acted as a cooperating witness for the police. Ordinarily, victims who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse and are willing to serve as cooperating witnesses are entitled to apply for U visas, which grant them temporary legal residency and allow them to work in the country for up to four years. However, the police in this case were not willing to sign the corroborating form, instead they claimed that the sexual act, a male raping another male under majority age, was consensual.
Wendell realized that the police force’s claim was not valid, since the age of consent in Florida is 16 and the immigrant was 15. Wendell pointed this out to his supervisor who now intends to use this point of law to convince the police to sign the requisite form. “The chances of him, (the client), getting the necessary paperwork for the U visa are a whole lot higher because of a quick simple thing I remembered from criminal law,” said Wendell.
Hillary Fenton also had a positive experience working at VIDA, where she helped a set of brothers apply for U.S. residency. One of the brothers cooperated with the organization, however the other was a bit more hostile. “I actually am trying to defend him not knowing exactly what he did,” said Fenton, who nonetheless intends on attending his hearing in Connecticut later this month. “It’s kind of an exercise in frustration, but enjoyable in a way,” she added.
Fenton is passionate about gender issues and her volunteer work at VIDA, which dealt largely with victims of domestic violence, only confirmed her interest in criminal defense while affording her the opportunity to polish her legal writing skills. Perhaps most importantly, Fenton emphasized that her experience brought her back to why she went to law school in the first place, “it’s a purely human kind of thing,” she noted.
Sean Wall, a volunteer at CCLS was most affected by accompanying his supervising attorney to client intakes. “You really get a feeling that these people are in need of help, (and that) they can’t afford the help.” He added that “a lot of them aren’t afforded due process rights or basic rights that we enjoy as citizens and it was eye opening to see that.”
Amidst the sunshine, or lack thereof, each student was affected in his or her own way. For some, the trip was confirmation that they were proceeding down the right path. For others, it was exposure to a new field of law. But for all, it was time well spent in the service of others. Or in the words of John Wendell, “It’s funny to say that I came on an immigration trip and decided that yes, I really do have an interest in prosecuting criminals, but yes, it’s true.”