Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic advocates for asylum-seekers in Berks Residential Center

CIRC students at work.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – For the second year in a row, the Penn State Law in University Park Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC) spent close to a week serving as advocates for families at the Berks County Residential Center (Berks) in Leesport, Pennsylvania, working in partnership with ALDEA, The People’s Justice Center. Under the supervision and guidance of Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the clinic and Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar at Penn State Law, four Penn State Law students, Kaitlyn Box, Shanjida Chowdhury, Marcus Hobson, and Tracy Wong, and two School of International Affairs (SIA) students, Isa Ferrera and Berenice Beltran Maldonado, and staff attorney Ashika Verriest worked tirelessly to help these families in any way they could, navigating new and complex immigration laws and policies.

Berks is one of three detention centers in the country that houses mothers, fathers, and children being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Students engaged with these families to help them prepare for their upcoming “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” interviews, during which families seeking asylum are expected to demonstrate fear of persecution or torture upon returning to their home country. While at Berks, the CIRC team also prepared statements for two families whose cases were being reviewed by an immigration judge.

Prior to making the trip to Berks, the CIRC team prepared for the experience by creating and reviewing a binder of material with the law and policy changes affecting asylum seekers who might be at Berks and by holding three to four mock interviews during the semester, covering a multitude of scenarios ranging from the ideal to the worst-case.

Two of the students that made the trip last year noticed that many things had changed in just one year’s time, due in large part to the Third Country Rule, also known as the “transit rule,” passed this summer by the Trump Administration. The rule states that those traveling through a third country without applying for asylum in that country will be barred from applying for asylum in the U.S., further complicating the journey of many of the families.

“I realized that I became really motivated when working directly with clients,” said Hobson, a third-year law student. “It was a truly sobering experience thinking about the journey these families had taken to seek asylum in the U.S. just to know that a lot of them may not succeed with their claims.”

The typical day for the team began at 6:30 a.m. with a working breakfast and continued with client meetings at the center until noon, when non-residents and workers had to leave over the lunch hour. Once allowed to return to the facility, they worked until 5, left again for the dinner hour, and usually came back at 6:00 p.m. to work until 8:00 p.m. After leaving the center, the team would then spend hours debriefing together and completing legal documents for the next morning.

Through their time at Berks, students met with close to 20 families, educating them on the asylum process, preparing them for interviews and acting as advocates during interviews. Three interviews were scheduled in the days after the team left, so they advocated via Skype from State College. Last year, the approval rate for the cases students dealt with was around 90%, with most of those families being released within 24 hours. This year, many of the cases are still awaiting decisions.

“The difference in how asylum seekers are faring is striking as compared to last year, both in terms of the application of new policies like the transit rule and in the multi-step process it takes to achieve a favorable outcome,” said Wadhia. “Beyond the law, my students have experienced a range of emotions associated with working in a detained setting, watching families with traumatized children, and processing loss after spending hours on a case. In this way I am supervising the substantive work of my students but also checking in with how they are emotionally.”

For those families who received a negative decision by the asylum officer after their fear interview, CIRC students continue to document to an immigration judge or the asylum office why those decisions should be reversed and as of November 22, have seen some success. The CIRC team is also completing a report on the conditions at Berks in partnership with ALDEA.

“Being from Honduras, I saw myself in every family we met and could relate to their stories,” said Ferrera, a Penn State LL.M. graduate and current SIA student participating in the trip for the second time. “I’ve worked in dangerous jails in Honduras, so I’ve seen a lot of things; by far, the hardest part of work like this is seeing innocent kids in a jail-like setting.”

The students reflected on their experience, with many being profoundly moved by their interactions with clients, especially the children, some as young as 18 months. The hugs, gifts of art, and trust granted truly made it all worthwhile for the participants.

“We were able to give clients a sense of comfort in their very vulnerable state,” said Chowdhury, a third-year law student also participating for the second time. “It was a life-changing experience for me; law school is so theoretical, so seeing people affected by what I’m learning and then able to put into practice is very humbling.”

Founded by Wadhia in 2008, the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is one of nine law clinics at Penn State Law that allow students to learn through experience under the guidance of clinical faculty. Under Wadhia’s supervision, students in the clinic engage in community outreach and education on topics such as immigration remedies for victims of crimes and changing immigration policy. The clinic also provides legal support in individual cases of immigrants challenging deportation (removal) or seeking protection through the Department of Homeland Security and in the courts.

The CIRC’s resources on asylum can be found online here.