Imagine you’re facing the U.S. court system. You’ll spend the next several years steeped in a case that will decide your fate or the fate of someone you love. Now imagine you have no lawyer, no one to help you navigate the arcane twists and turns of this alien world. Now imagine you have to do this all in a language you don’t speak.
That’s where Ismael found himself when his nephew Juan was sent to live with him less than two years ago. Both are from El Salvador. Ismael has been in Idaho a few years but his nephew came more recently. At 16 years old, Juan fled gang violence and was caught trying to cross the U.S. border. He was part of a flood of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors that got a lot of news coverage in 2014. Juan requested asylum and was sent to Idaho to stay with his uncle until the courts decide if he can stay long term.
“Every time I go to court I’m worried that the immigration judge might change his mind and he might deport him that day,” Ismael says through an interpreter. “That’s something that Juan and I are scared of every time we go.”
When Juan got here, Ismael wanted to get him a lawyer. He says he’d learned from experience how important having an attorney is.
“I have a brother that was here previously and in the third hearing they deported him,” Ismael says.
Ismael thinks if his brother had a lawyer he would not have been deported. Ismael told a judge he was looking for a lawyer but hadn’t found one he could afford. The judge gave him more time to look, then an extension on that time but said if they didn’t get one soon, Juan’s case would have to move forward with no attorney. That’s when they found Project LAURA.
LAURA is an acronym for Latin American Unaccompanied Minor and Refugee Assistance. Boise immigration attorney Nicole Derden created it.
“I began to see a surge of these cases in my own practice and they seemed to be the neediest cases,” Derden says.
Derden could not come close to providing pro bono representation to all these asylum seekers suddenly coming through her office doors. And she had nowhere to send them.
“There is no entity in Idaho that a person can receive pro bono legal services or low bono regal representation in the deportation court,” Derden says.
So she decided to create one. She got a couple other immigration lawyers on board, but still not nearly enough to meet the need. But Derden knew where there was a bunch of ‘almost lawyers’.
In addition to running her own law firm Derden teaches at Concordia university School of Law in Downtown Boise. Concordia agreed to host the project as a law clinic and Derden recruited final-year law students from Concordia and the University of Idaho School of Law, plus Spanish majors from Boise State University to help interpret. They launched Project LAURA in January and have reviewed or consulted on about 20 cases and fully taken on 12 of them. Clients include unaccompanied minors and adult asylum seekers. Most of their adult clients also have small children.
A study released last year by the American Immigration Council says that undocumented immigrants with legal representation are far more likely to have successful outcomes in their cases. In some situations the chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S. was almost five times higher with a lawyer. But immigration courts do not have to provide a lawyer if someone can’t afford one. And according to that same study, the vast majority of people in the immigration court system don’t have representation.
Derden and the couple of other licensed attorneys involved with Project LAURA do things like review documents the students write and answer questions, but Derden says the students do pretty much everything a full-fledged attorney would do on these cases. She says they also do a lot of things an attorney wouldn’t have to do if he or she worked in a law firm. She says it’s very similar to the experience of being a lawyer with a one-room office and no other employees.
Yadira Juarez, a recent U of I Law grad, has been Ismael’s lawyer-in-all-but-name since the project started five months ago. He says (through her) that he thinks the representation he’s gotten has been just as good as if he’d hired a licensed attorney.
“I mean, maybe they don’t have the experience, but they know immigration law and they are capable of doing a good job,” Ismael says. “I would have wanted to continue working with her but she couldn’t.”
That’s one drawback of having students do this work. Immigration cases often take several years and a student can only do the job for a semester or two. Juarez says when Ismael and Juan came to her in January she figured out that Juan could apply for a special legal status that would make his chances of staying in the country much more likely. But he could only apply if his guardianship issues were resolved before he turned 18.
“I remember calling the court trying to get a hearing,” Juarez says. “And the next available hearing wasn’t until May because that’s how backed up the court system is right now. This was particularly important because the client turned 18 in April.”
Juarez couldn’t get a guardianship hearing any sooner so she asked a judge to give them a hearing on a separate matter. That other thing didn’t actually need a hearing but the judge had some questions and granted the hearing. Then Juarez convinced the judge to also consider the guardianship issue at that hearing. So she was able to wrap up Juan’s guardianship case two days before he turned 18, which meant she was able to apply for him to get this status called SIJS.
“I have no doubt in my mind that if he had not gone to Project LAURA, he would not be able to apply for SIJS,” Juarez says. “There’s no way they could have navigated the system on their own. It wouldn’t have happened.”
Juarez is taking the bar exam in July and then hopes to get a job practicing immigration law. She’s handing Juan and Ismeal’s case over to a Concordia student who will take it for the summer and maybe the fall. Nicole Derden says she’d like to see Project LAURA grow but it’s so new they’re just focusing on keeping it afloat and finding out if it works. Remember, cases like the ones Project LAURA deals with can take years, so it’s hard to tell after a few months how well it’s going.
[To hear stories of unaccompanied minors arrested on the U.S. border now living in Idaho check out the latest episode of our podcast Some of the Parts.]
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
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