Excerpted From: Nicole Hallett, How Do You Teach Immoral Laws?, 67 Saint Louis University Law Journal 543 (Spring, 2023) (28 Footnotes) (Full Document)


NicoleHallettIn January 2019, I spent a week with eight law students at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. At that time, the detention facility housed women and children, mostly from Central America, while they attempted to navigate the U.S. asylum system. We joined a massive legal effort to make sure every person at the facility had access to legal representation. The permanent staff on the ground welcomed groups of law students and interpreters every week to prepare hundreds of women for their credible fear interviews. If they passed, the families would have a chance to stay in the United States to apply for asylum and most would be released from detention to await their court dates.

The plans for the trip had come together the previous summer after several students from the University at Buffalo School of Law, where I was teaching at the time, came to me distraught over the news about the Trump Administration's family separation policy. The American public had spent weeks in rapt attention to the human rights violations unfolding at the border. Photos of children in cages dominated the news. Like many people, the students felt helpless. I suggested that they channel their rage into action by putting their nascent legal skills to use.

Before the trip, I had a series of sessions with the students where I taught them the basics of U.S. asylum law. I also tried to prepare them for the psychological toll the week might have on them. I had been to Dilley before and I knew what it would be like. They listened intently, taking notes and registering anguish on their faces. But as often happens, they did not truly understand the horror of the situation until they set foot in the detention facility.

The experience of working at Dilley is hard to fully capture on paper. Imagine a small room in a trailer with no windows where you will sit from 7:00am to 8:00 pm with only short breaks. One woman after another will come in the room and tell you why she came to the United States. She will describe unspeakably terrible things that have happened to her: rape, murder of family members, death threats, forced prostitution, extortion. Often the perpetrator is her boyfriend or husband. Other times, it is gang members or narco-traffickers. Sometimes, the woman does not know who it was, but that does not make the scars--physical and psychological--any less real. Sometimes, a child sits beside them, silently listening.

Once she tells you her story, your job is to shoehorn that story into the complex eligibility requirements for asylum in the United States. You will need to explain to her why just being afraid is not enough. She must be afraid of a particular kind of harm inflicted upon her for a particular kind of reason. You will help her practice telling her story to emphasize certain aspects and de-emphasize others, to explain it in such a way that the asylum officer will be able to tick all the boxes on their government-issued form. You will explain that if the interview does not go well--for example, if she forgets or leaves out certain details or, worse still, if she is too traumatized to tell the story at all--she and her children will likely be deported. Then you will send her on her way.

I am not sure you can really prepare someone for this kind of experience. You can teach them about vicarious trauma. You can give them space to reflect and process what they have learned. You can make mental health resources available to them and you can help them develop a self-care plan. But at the end of the day, you cannot protect them from reality. State violence directed toward the most vulnerable among us is always shocking, regardless of how many times you have seen it before. The rage that the students had brought with them to Dilley would be coming home with them. The helplessness would remain with them too, though perhaps lessened by the perception that they were at least doing something.

The long van rides to the hotel in the evenings were an opportunity for the students to reflect on the day. The first few evenings, the van was filled with conversation. By the third evening, though, it was silent. They had simply run *546 out of ways to talk about the things they had seen and heard, and no one felt much like talking anyway.

* * *

Being a professor of immigration law in the United States today means teaching a system of oppression. The U.S. immigration system was founded on racism and lies, and that legal foundation has remained essentially unchanged to the present day. Our immigration laws are arbitrary, harsh, and illogical. The immigration system is a bureaucratic nightmare fueled by incompetence and malice. Hundreds of thousands of people are chewed up and spit out by the system each year. Lives are ruined. Families are split apart. People die. It is an epic human rights disaster that is happening right before our eyes, but that most people cannot see. To immigration lawyers, the most shocking thing about the family separation policy was not that it was happening, but that people noticed.

There are too many horror stories to share, but I will recount just one. I had a client a few years ago who was from Jamaica. His mother had severe mental health problems and abandoned the family when he was just a toddler. When he was five, he was sexually abused by an “uncle.” He came to the United States with his father when he was six, but his life did not improve. His father left him with relatives for long stretches of time. He was raped by a man who lived in his neighborhood when he was thirteen. He developed mental health issues and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He began abusing alcohol and drugs. At age twenty, he found himself in removal proceedings because of a marijuana conviction.

The U.S. immigration system did not see him for who he was--a traumatized, mentally ill young man in need of help. Instead, they locked him up and took away his medication. When he began hallucinating, the detention center put him in solitary confinement. He attempted suicide and they punished him by taking away his dollar-a-day prison job. The immigration judge decided that his story of abuse and mental illness was not credible and denied his claims for relief. The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the denial, though it failed to mail us the decision. On Christmas Eve, he called one of my students in a panic to tell us that the government planned to deport him the day after Christmas.

When I called the government attorney to ask if he would agree to an emergency stay, the attorney chastised me for ruining his holiday celebration. How dare I contact him on the most holiest of days? A student later uncovered a family newsletter that the attorney had written and posted on social media that described his job as “helping immigrants start new lives in their home countries.” It was followed by a laughing emoji.

There are many things to say about this story, but I often feel like my students in the van: speechless.

[. . .] * * *

After the week in Dilley was over, I drove the students to the San Antonio airport so they could catch their flights back to Buffalo. My flight was leaving later that afternoon and so I sat in the airport and tried to decompress. The Trump Administration had just announced another draconian and punitive immigration policy. This time it was Remain in Mexico, which would require asylum-seekers to await their asylum hearings in Mexico, making them vulnerable to violence and denying them access to legal representation. As I read the news on my phone, it dawned on me that the women I had met that week were among the lucky ones, having arrived at the border after the family separation policy had formally ended but before Remain in Mexico was implemented.

As I sat there, I saw a group of women and children enter the airport terminal. I knew they had come from Dilley because they were still wearing their identification bracelets and the white tennis shoes the facility had issued them. Having passed their credible fear interviews, they would be able to stay in the United States, at least for a little while. One of the children, a boy about four years old, asked his mother for some mints at an airport store and she pulled out a few dollars to pay. They looked happy and ready to start the next chapter of their lives. The week in Dilley had been worth it, if only so I could witness this moment.

Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.