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St. Thomas Law Delegation Aids Separated Migrant Families in Texas

By August 3, 2018Law School, STU News

The humanitarian crisis caused by the separation of migrant children from their asylum-seeking parents has had an effect on everyone who has heard the heartbreaking stories.

The St. Thomas Law family answered the call, sprung into action and headed to Texas to lend their much-needed expertise to assist detained and separated families. The effort was launched by the Immigration Law Students Association (ILSA) at St. Thomas University, its president, Andrea Valencia, and immediate past president, Diego Sanchez. The ILSA raised their own funds with the help of generous contributions from our law school faculty members.

The St. Thomas Law Karnes Pro Bono Project partnered with RAICES, a non-profit organization that remains on the front lines on this issue. Nathalia Lozano, Vanessa Baez and Catherine Perez were the Project Coordinators.  

This is the third such trip that St. Thomas Law has taken to the Karnes Detention Center in Texas, having gone there in 2016 to assist with immigrant issues.

But this trip was different. While all the stories are hard to hear and difficult to fathom, the ones that detail the ripping of children from their parents heighten the urgency of the situation.

Led, once again, by supervising St. Thomas Law Professor Lauren Gilbert, who teaches Constitutional Law, Family Law, Immigration Law, and an Immigration Seminar, the team was comprised of law students, professors and mental health professionals.

The Team from St. Thomas University at the Alamo in Texas.

The law students chosen for the 2018 team are: Lucas Aisenberg (3L), Jacqueline Vazquez-Aldana (3L), Vanessa Baez (3L), Alida Bustos (2L), Sofi Henshaw (2L), Maria Cornu Laport (2L), Nathalia Lozano (3L), Stefanie Morse (3L), Donna Nasimov (3L), Jasmine Ramos(3L), Otto Ruiz Frantzen(3L), and Alexsandra Simoes (3L).

The group also included a team of mental health experts. Professor Dr. Judith Bachay, Program Director of the St. Thomas University Graduate Counseling Programs, oversaw the trauma specialists. Lory Toledo, Executive Director of the Trauma Resolution Center who accompanied the  Karnes team in 2016, sent members of her team, including Carla Barrows, Camila Montesano, Stephanie Vasquez, and Tizrah Neves.

STU Law student, Donna Nasimov, created a blog, within which the other attending students wrote about the experience from their own perspective.  One of the most poignant perspectives comes by way of a letter written by Professor Gilbert. It can be read below:

I am writing after our fourth day at the Karnes Detention Center.  It has been an overwhelming, inspiring, devastating, exhausting week.  Today, Wednesday, was a particularly hard day, and left some of us feeling a bit empty inside.  On Saturday afternoon, after the entire STU team assembled at the Alamo, we received a call from Kathryn Delgado, the pro bono coordinator.   She said that we were needed at Karnes on Sunday.  An injunction preventing the reunified families from being deported was about to be lifted, and they needed us to meet with the fathers and sons to determine if they wanted to fight their cases.  Most of these were new arrivals to Karnes.  Almost all of them were separated upon arrival to the United States and held in separate detention facilities until Judge Sabraw ordered their reunification by July 26, 2018.  Many of the parents and kids we met with that Sunday had only been reunited for a few days. 
For many it has been a joyful experience, but many parents told us that they keep asking their children for forgiveness for what happened.  Some must confront horrible choices, such as whether to remain together and fight their cases, to remain together for deportation, or for the fathers to accept deportation while their sons to seek a better life.  Most of the time, fathers and children are in agreement, but sometimes conflicts arise.  Today we asked children, from age 6 to age 16, what they wanted to do, away from their fathers who had asked to be deported because they could not bear another day in detention.  It was devastating, particularly where the child’s desires were at odds with the parent’s, which was how our day ended.  
I suspect that Karnes is being used by ICE as a staging ground for removal of fathers and sons who range in age from 5 to 17.  Most fathers were separated from their sons within 1-2 days of their arrival. Some had a few minutes to say goodbye.  Dads and kids remained separated while in the same detention facility for 1-2 days before being shipped off to their destinations. Many dads were then sent to federal prisons, where they were prosecuted for illegal entry.  After completing brief sentences or being sentenced to time served, they were transferred to ICE detention centers.  Most of the dads had their credible fear interviews (CFIs) with the Asylum Office and IJ Reviews with the Immigration Judge (IJ) soon after their separation from their kids.  Many described severe symptoms of trauma and anxiety during these interviews, including chest pains, headaches, and extreme anxiety.  Their hearts were literally aching!   Most received negative decisions by the Asylum Officer and Immigration Judge, which, in many cases, we are now trying to overturn. 
After Judge Sabraw set July 26 as the deadline for reunification, ICE shipped many fathers and kids to a facility in El Paso.  Some fathers were given humanitarian parole, made to sign a ton of documents, told they were being released, and then reunited with their kids.  This was a moment of great hope, until they realized that they were not being released after all.  The same night of their reunification, fathers and sons were put on buses and sent to Karnes.  The next day, their humanitarian parole was revoked. 
We have seen loving fathers who want the best for their sons.  Many are sacrificing themselves to be deported so their sons can remain.  We have encouraged these fathers, many who have strong cases, to stay and fight.  Sadly, it seems like those with the strongest cases are most torn between staying here with their sons and returning to their countries to protect their remaining family members.  Although we expected to work with women and children when we planned our trip to Karnes, I have to say that I am grateful for this opportunity to work with these fathers and sons.  Their strength of character and love for each other has been an inspiration. 
Lauren Gilbert, Esq.
Professor of Law
Director, Immigration Practice Certificate Program
St. Thomas University School of Law
The words of Professor Gilbert and the efforts of the entire St. Thomas team highlight our school’s core mission.
St. Thomas Law’s legal education goes beyond simply training attorneys; but also focuses on creating advocates who give voice to the voiceless.  Our school remains committed to teaching, training, and empowering the next generation of  community leaders, and instilling a lasting service ethic within our students that benefits them well beyond graduation.

We are grateful that our team did not simply shake their heads and offer comment about how sad the crisis is, but rather, took life-changing action to effectuate change. 

For more details and images please check out the student blog here:



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