Monday, March 5, 2018

St. Thomas Law Students' Life-Changing Experience Assisting Detained Somali Refugees

Professor Lauren Gilbert and eight St. Thomas Law students -  Carolina Acosta-Fox, Mirtha Garcia-Alvarez, Tessa Juste, Diego Sanchez, Melany Cornejo, Catherine Perez, Vanessa Baez, Nathalia Lozano -  recently spent two days at the Glades County Detention Center working on behalf of several Somali deportees whose flight back to Somalia got turned back in Senegal for reasons that remain unclear.

Members of the student team from St. Thomas Law included  Catherine Perez, Diego Sanchez, Vanessa Baez, Nathalia Lozano, Mirtha Garcia Alvarez, and Carolina Acosta-Fox. 

A team of lawyers including groups from the University of Miami School of Law, Americans for Immigrant Justice and Broward Legal Aid successfully sought a preliminary injunction in federal court against the return of the Somalis on that flight. 

Ready to work: Members of the St. Thomas Law student group will be
participating in similar projects in the future.
Pictured are Cynthia Rosa (standing), Tessa Juste and Diego Sanchez. 
Many of these Somali fled their country when they were little children, and entered as refugees. Many still suffer PTSD as a result of their experiences, and several relived those experiences while meeting with the student teams. One young man, who fled with his family when he was eight, described being carried by his father through the jungle and witnessing his sister’s leg being blown off after she stepped on a land mine. 

Another young single mother described the fear she experienced about being sent back to Somalia as an Americanized woman, and how the guards on the plane refused to allow her to change into more traditional clothing before the plane landed. Several of these individuals are seeking a second chance, applying to have their removal orders reopened and for relief under the Convention Against Torture. 

Al Shabaab, an extremist group that has taken over large parts of Somalia and targeted Americanized Muslims and Christians, has carried out several bombings in recent months, including a deadly car bombing in February near the Presidential Palace. Also, the return of the Somalis’ flight has been extensively publicized in Somalia, making the persons on that flight likely targets of Al Shabaab. While the federal lawsuit is pending, pro bono attorneys and law students are seeking to have their cases reopened based on changed country conditions. 

"The Glades experience was life changing," stated Catherine Perez.  "After hearing some of the detainees stories, you really start to cherish principles like freedom of religion, that the great majority of Americans take for granted. This experience reminded me of why I chose to come to law school in the first place."

Over the two-day period, the students and Professor Gilbert met with approximately 15 individuals finishing up work on the cases, including finalizing I-589 applications, personal statements and notes from the meetings. The St. Thomas Law team has been collaborating with Miami Law and Americans for Immigrant Justice providing on the ground support for the pro bono attorneys around the country assigned to these cases. Each team worked on at least two different cases, and had the experience of drafting a personal statement and I-589, while some also explored other possible remedies. Diego Sanchez (3L), the President of  St. Thomas Law's  Immigration Law Students Association was pivotal in recruiting and organizing teams. 

There are similar, future projects being planned. Students interested should contact Professor Gilbert or Diego Sanchez

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