© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New course offers St. Louis University law students hands-on immigration-law experience

Unauthorized immigrants in rural areas who seek legal representation can often face roadblocks when trying to find credible lawyers.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

A new St. Louis University course is aiming to give law students hands-on experience with immigration law.

The course, Removal Defense Project: Sheltering Vulnerable Immigrant Families and Children, will begin spring semester 2019. It centers on providing aspiring attorneys with the skills necessary to defend those in jeopardy of facing removal proceedings.

“We’re going to look at, 'How do you represent individuals who are in this process?'” said Ken Schmitt, one of two adjunct professors teaching the course. “The process does look a lot different, at least at the front end, if you’re at the border versus if you’re apprehended, or if this process starts in the interior.”

The difference in processes at the border and in other locations around the country is partly why the class will travel to the town of Dilley, Texas, near the end of the semester.

Students and faculty will stay in Dilley for a week, applying their coursework while engaging in defense proceedings at the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigrant detention center in the U.S.

“They get to see an aspect of our system that reminds many of them why they want to be lawyers in the first place,” Schmitt said.

St. Francis Community Services, a St. Louis nonprofit, will also contribute to the course, including providing therapy training for the students traveling to Dilley. Kristine Walentik, a staff attorney for organization, said the training will prepare the students for some of the harrowing experiences they may hear about when engaging with the detainees.

“Many times, it has to do with the violence that happened — whether it be gang violence, domestic violence situations, extreme poverty,” Walentik said. “They are forced to retell that story without a lot of prep time, without going through having time to process what has already happened to them.”

Related: For rural, unauthorized immigrants and migrant farmworkers, finding a lawyer can mean a long road

While in Dilley, the students will volunteer with the CARA, a pro-bono legal collaborative including the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services and the American Immigration Council.

CARA began in 2015 following the establishment of the Dilley detention center, with the goal of representing the women and children seeking asylum after fleeing their native countries.

Most of the people at the detention center are women and children, Walentik said. The law students will join CARA volunteers in preparing those in the detention center for the “credible fear” interview.

That interview is the first step asylum-seekers take when attempting to make their case for asylum before a judge.

“For the students, it’s a great opportunity for them to get a hands-on experience of working with clients and working with a vulnerable population,” Walentik said. “Given the situation at the border and the increased number of families coming to the border claiming asylum, this is a great opportunity.”

The students will travel to Dilley, Texas, in April.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.