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Women’s History Month Highlight: Professor Lauren Gilbert Giving Voice to Voiceless Women

By March 8, 2016College of Law, STU News
From Central America to South Florida:  Providing a Voice for Women of the “Surge”
In recognition of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, St. Thomas Law is highlighting the tremendous pro bono effort being taken on by St. Thomas Law professor Lauren Gilbert. Following are the stories of five Central American women  and their families that highlight the abuse that women continue to suffer globally, the sacrifice that these women have had to make to protect their families, and the incredibly selfless work being done by Professor Gilbert and her immigration students to assist women of the surge.  The “surge” is the official name that the government gave to the huge number of Central American asylum-seekers who began to arrive in 2014.


In the spring of 2015, Professor Gilbert and her immigration law students began volunteering with Catholic Legal Services (CLS), participating in a series of trainings, intake clinics and pro se clinics to assist Central American women and children with their asylum applications. Our St. Thomas Law students helped these women and their families by developing case theories, translating documents, and assisting in the completion of their asylum applications.

Professor Lauren Gilbert

CLS and other agencies had received substantial funding to help the unaccompanied children (“UACs”) whose parents were sending them to the United States on their own, but no agency in South Florida had yet received funding to represent the women who chose to make the journey with their children, the so-called “adults with children” or AWCs.

The American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) co-hosted a training for pro bono attorneys to encourage them to take these cases, but very few private attorneys did so. Professor Gilbert, however, took her first case at this training, agreeing to represent Darla (names have been changed to protect her client’s privacy), a young woman with two small children who had fled domestic violence in Honduras.. A month later, Professor Gilbert participated in a pro se asylum clinic in Homestead, Florida, helping AWCs fill out their asylum applications, and was so moved by the case of the young Mayan woman from Guatemala that she agreed, that day, to represent her as well. This young woman suffered at the hands of her Ladino husband, who degraded, humiliated and abused her because of her Mayan identity.
A month after that, Professor Gilbert, once again, agreed to represent a Salvadoran woman and her two children.  Older than her other clients, this woman had left El Salvador with her small daughter and teenage son after a violent confrontation between her boyfriend and her son and after learning from her son that the boyfriend was a member of one of the gangs that ruled her town.  As a former attorney-investigator for the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, Professor Gilbert wanted very much to represent a Salvadoran AWC, because of what she described as her own sense that the current violence against women in El Salvador could be traced back to the Truth Commission’s failure, despite overwhelming evidence of its existence, to grapple with the problem of gender violence in its 1993 Report.

Professor Gilbert began by representing Darla, but soon took on the cases of her sisters, Sonia and Selma, who fled soon thereafter. Darla, 24, had left Honduras in April 2014 to escape domestic violence. She traveled with her three year old son by bus through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, and crossed the border by foot into the United States, not realizing that she was pregnant with her next child. Professor Gilbert was drawn to her case both because she was about the age of her daughter, and because the one-year-filing deadline was on Good Friday, about ten days away.

Darla and her four sisters had raised each other after their mother left Honduras to come to the United States twelve years earlier.  Her oldest sister, Sonia, was just fifteen.  Her youngest, Selma was seven.  She was in the middle.

“I felt called to her case, and spent Semana Santa, as Easter Week is known in Central and South America, working with her to complete her application and hand-delivering it to her immigration judge on Good Friday 2015,” recalled Professor Gilbert.

The violence that these women witnessed and endured is evidenced by the story of Pedro, the common law husband of  Darla’s sister Sonia, who had been brutally murdered by one of the major gangs. The sisters and Pedro’s mother attempted to flee together but were turned back in Mexico twice.  The third time the family separated, and Sonia arrived with her son, seven months pregnant, in late May, and immediately was released from detention.  She joined her mother, who lived in Michigan, and whom she had not seen in over 12 years.  The younger sister, Selma, just 19, was not so lucky.  Because she was no longer a “child” but also not a mother, she was placed into detention at the infamous Hutto Detention Center in Texas when she reached the United States in mid-June 2015.
“I agreed to help her get out of detention, not realizing what a challenge this would be,” stated Professor Gilbert.

Since Selma had presented herself at the border and requested asylum rather than seeking to enter without inspection, she was classified as an “arriving alien” and thus not entitled to a bond hearing before an immigration judge.  It was entirely up to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) whether or not to release her.  Due to the large number of persons seeking asylum at the border, she did not receive her credible fear interview for over a month.  Professor Gilbert participated via telephone to ensure that the process and interview was fair.  

Over the following month, Professor Gilbert worked tirelessly to ensure that Selma passed her credible fear interview and eventually got a hearing.   As everyone waited for ICE to rule on her release, her entire family decided to move to Miami after Professor Gilbert agreed to represent all three sisters and their children. Darla eventually received her work permit and is now working legally to support her extended family.  Her sisters also managed to find work. There is still much to be done on all three cases, however.   

“It has been a powerful experience to accompany these women and families on their journeys,” stated Professor Gilbert.  ” I must do what I can so that they may remain.  South Florida is a better place with them.”



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