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Law Students Offer Free Legal Counsel To Detainees


The entrance to the South Texas Family Residential Center. The facility will detain up to 2400 women and children as they wait to hear if they will be deported from the U.S.

The entrance to the South Texas Family Residential Center. The facility will detain up to 2400 women and children as they wait to hear if they will be deported from the U.S.

Leland Baxter-Neal/Lewis & Clark Law School

A group of students from Lewis & Clark Law School recently traveled to a newly opened immigrant detention center in Texas to offer free legal services to detainees at the facility. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley was built exclusively to hold women and children entering the country from Latin America, and will eventually be able to hold 2,400 detainees.

Officials at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement say the facility is necessary to house a spike in immigrants coming into the country illegally. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has said that the opening of the center is part of an effort to “place new emphasis on border security.”

“It will now be more likely that you will be apprehended; it will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back; and it will now be more likely that your hard-earned money to smuggle a family member to the United States will be seized.”

ICE declined to comment to OPB, but sent a fact sheet listing amenities available at the Dilley Center such as 24/7 medical services, regular meals, schooling, internet access, and a legal library.

But advocates criticize ICE for detaining children and families for months on end at the Dilley facility. Stephen Manning works for Portland-based Immigrant Law Group. He says prior to last summer he had only seen children detained for 10-14 days before they would be deported or released from custody. By contrast, one 4-year-old child in the Dilley center has now been detained for nine months, says Manning.

Advocates also say the government should be wary of deporting these families, when many came to the U.S. fleeing violence in their homelands.

“A lot of the women fled on threats of death,” says Juliann Peebles, a law student at Lewis & Clark Law School who counseled several women in the facility.

“You have hours, minutes to leave and you might be killed.”

The detainees have no right to a legal defense, as they are not citizens. But a network of hundreds of volunteer lawyers has been established to help them navigate the process. The lawyers representing detainees are often only on site for a week or two at a time, doing what Lewis & Clark law student Rodrigo Juarez describes as “guerrilla-style lawyering … from 6 a.m. til 2 in the morning we were working non-stop.”

Still, a week is rarely long enough to see a case through from beginning to end. To help ensure a consistent defense, a new group of attorneys arrives at the facility on a weekly basis, sharing case notes digitally with one another so new arrivals can pick up where others left off.

When the Lewis & Clark team returned to Portland, Peebles says they were wondering, “Why aren’t more people upset about this? … You sit across a table from a woman who has been through something you couldn’t imagine and she’s being detained by your government. I think we all have a duty to stand up for them.”

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