UW law students plan trip to Texas to help represent immigrant families being held in detention

A group of nine University of Wisconsin-Madison law students will drive to Dilley, Texas, in August to assist immigrants being held in a family detention center.

“Statistics show that, if you have an attorney, you are five times more likely to be successful (in a deportation hearing),” said Erin Barbato, an immigration attorney who leads the immigrant Justice Clinic at UW. “And you don’t have to face a system that is intimidating or as you’ve seen in the news, 3-year-olds representing themselves in front of an immigration judge. That should never happen. It’s shameful.”

Each semester, the Immigrant Justice Clinic at UW allows about a dozen students to practice immigration law under Barbato’s license and do pro bono work for local immigrants in need of representation.

Immigrants, including unaccompanied minors, are not given a government attorney to represent them. If they can’t afford an attorney, they are forced to represent themselves.

“Everyone, in our opinion, is entitled to due process, and a lot of people aren’t receiving that because they’re not from here and that seems very strange to us,” said law student Nancy Cruz.

As a member of the Latino and Latina Law Student Association, Cruz helped organize the trip to Texas.

“We focus our careers and our resources to make sure that everybody gets justice and everybody has access to basic human necessities and are treated like humans,” said Cruz.

Although Dilley is home to one of the nation’s largest immigrant detention centers, Barbato said it’s an “immigration attorney desert” with barely any free resources.

While there for a week, students will help immigrant women and children apply for relief from detention or asylum and prepare them to see an immigration judge.

“In talking about access to justice, there’s all kinds of vulnerable populations but one of the most vulnerable are detained children,” said second-year law student Angela O’Brien. “Children who don’t even know, can’t even articulate where they came from, what country they came from and yet they’re somehow expected to tell a judge to convince them to stay or send them on to a family member.”

Barbato said although the national news organizations have been focusing on immigrants with no representation near the border, it is happening across the country, including in Dane County.

The Immigrant Justice Clinic is seeing an increase in the number of calls from immigrants in need of an attorney.

There’s also an increase in the amount of law students choosing to study immigration law.

“There’s an increased desire to be involved in immigration law and the process at this time because of everything that’s going on in our country towards immigrants and removal and deportation,” said Barbato.

She hopes every immigrant in Dane County who is going through a deportation hearing will soon have the option to use an attorney.

“I think we have a rare opportunity to make a significant impact on the world here in Madison by serving as the example for every other city here in the United States,” said Barbato.