UConn Group to Spend Spring Break Assisting Asylum Applicants

American flag and fence. (Alxey Pnferov via Getty Images)
A team led by UConn Law's Asylum and Human Rights Clinic will spend the break at a detention facility offering free legal help and social work assessments and support to female detainees from Central America. (Alxey Pnferov via Getty Images)

At a time of turmoil and uncertainty over immigration, a team of UConn law and social work students, professors, and alumni will travel to Pennsylvania over spring break to help refugees seeking asylum.

For the law students, it’s new … trying to put together an asylum application where you have to document persecution. We hope to train all of the team how to interview people about the most horrifying events of their lives. — Megan Berthold

It will be the second annual trip for the Immigration Detention Service Project, and it drew interest from twice as many UConn School of Law students this year. With limited space available at the detention center in York, Pa., only 12 of the 23 law students who expressed an interest will be able to go, said Anna Cabot, a teaching fellow at the law school’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, which organized the project.

The law students will be joined by two students and an alumna from the School of Social Work; one graduate student from the main campus in Storrs; four volunteer attorneys, including three UConn Law alumnae; and three UConn professors – Megan Berthold from the School of Social Work, Mark Overmyer-Velazquez from the Department of History, and Cabot from UConn Law.

The team will offer free legal help to detainees, as well as assessments and support from the social workers, during the week of March 12. Their work will focus on women from Central America who are seeking asylum under U.S. laws intended to protect refugees fleeing persecution.

York County Prison, Pa., where a team from UConn Law's Asylum Clinic will spend spring break assisting applicants for asylum. (Courtesy of UConn Law)
York County Prison, Pa., where a team from UConn led by UConn Law’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic will spend spring break assisting applicants for asylum. (Courtesy of UConn Law)

The students will spend several hours a day in small, barren meeting rooms at the detention center, interviewing asylum seekers. Then they will spend the rest of the day researching and drafting documents to support the claims in the conference room of CGA Law Firm in York, which has donated space for that purpose.

Miriam Elisa Hasbun, a third-year law student, went on the trip last year, even though she had not yet taken any immigration courses. The daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and a fluent speaker of Spanish, she acted not only as a member of the legal team but as an interpreter for the detainees, recounting their stories of rape and shootings.

To help law students deal with the atrocities they heard about, the contingent from the School of Social Work had debriefing sessions and training on vicarious trauma.

“It’s pretty grim,” Berthold said. “For the law students, it’s new going into [detention centers], trying to put together an asylum application where you have to document persecution. We hope to train all of the team how to interview people about the most horrifying events of their lives.”

I saw just how much courage these people have, everything they were risking to come here. — Christina Gill

Refugees from Central America have not been directly affected by President Trump’s most contested executive order on immigration, which sought to suspend entry of anyone from seven majority-Muslim nations. But the measures have already affected the work of the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, said its director, Professor Jon Bauer.

“We had an asylum hearing for a client from one of the seven countries who has a very strong case for asylum,” he said. “The interview lasted more than four and a half hours, with what could only be described as extreme vetting.”

The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic works year-round to help refugees – who are fleeing persecution and violence – apply for asylum in the United States. Since its inception in 2002, the clinic has handled more than 123 asylum cases through completion, and won asylum or other forms of relief from removal in 114 of them.

The clinic now has three clients from the seven countries named in the executive order. “They are here. They are worried,” Cabot said. “Who knows what will happen? We are monitoring the situation.”

Christina Gill, a second-year law student who participated in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic this semester, said the experience has made her want to become an immigration attorney.

“I think, for me, I saw just how much courage these people have,” she said, “everything they were risking to come here.”

Hasbun believes that the environment for immigrants – which she called “terrifying” and “very unstable” – has brought more attention to the field of immigration law, and inspired those who want to help. “I think more people are interested than before,” she said.

That includes Hasbun herself. She is already working part-time for a small Hartford law firm that specializes in immigration, and is planning to practice immigration law after she graduates.