Each semester of law school includes a “placement week” when students can hunt for jobs or take a vacation if they already have a job lined up.

But four BYU Law students used this semester’s break to volunteer at a detention center in Texas for women and children fleeing violence in their home country and seeking asylum in the United States.

“You hear about immigration on the news but you don’t really comprehend it until you go there and speak to these women face-to-face,” said Elijah Pratt, a third-year student in BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Elijah Pratt
Law student Elijah Pratt. Photo by Nate Edwards.

The women who go through the facility in Dilley, Texas, left violent conditions in their home countries, mostly El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. One woman Pratt met with was an 18-year-old mother whose three brothers were killed by a gang. When her baby got sick and she couldn’t continue to make payments to the gang, she sold everything to come to the United States.

Pratt, who learned Spanish on an LDS mission in Wisconsin, met with the woman to give her a 30-minute orientation on the asylum process.

“Just having a basic orientation is really helpful for them,” said Pratt, who plans a career in immigration law. “Otherwise they show up to the interview cold and don’t understand what is going on.”

Some of the women who come through the detention center in Dilley presented themselves at a United States port of entry to seek asylum from the violence back home. Others hire a “coyote” to take them across illegally and afterward begin the legal process of seeking asylum. Sadly, many women who go this second route are re-traumatized because the men they hire coerce and rape them.

BYU Law Professor Kif Augustine-Adams guided Pratt and classmates Luisa Patoni-Rees, Rachel Okura and John Brooks through this intense service and learning experience. Each of the students provided individual consultations to about 40 women to prepare them for their initial interview with an asylum officer.

“The students were so great and worked so hard,” Augustine-Adams said. “They jumped right in from the beginning and worked 12—14-hour days.”

Louisa Patoni-Rees
Law student Luisa Patoni-Rees. Photo by Nate Edwards.

As a native Spanish speaker, Patoni-Rees had the assignment of gathering statements from witnesses in asylum seekers’ home countries. Working alongside Professor Augustine-Adams meant a lot to Patoni-Rees.

“In the classroom, she is one of those professors who really makes you feel like you are in law school – you feel proud of yourself for being able to answer just one of her questions,” Patoni-Rees said. “In Dilley it was really cool to see the passion there from a mentor, to see somebody who is doing what you want to do.”

Augustine-Adams and fellow BYU Law Professor Carolina Núñez started this weeklong externship program after trying it out themselves last summer. Núñez will take the next group of students in the winter semester.

She intends to keep the group small because she wants to keep a close eye on how students are coping. “Secondary trauma” can be an issue when volunteers hear a succession of stories of violence and rape. But the lessons a law student can learn through the experience are invaluable.

“Attorneys are an important part of making the law,” Núñez said. “It’s not just whether you win or lose. We need to present these women’s stories to the courts so the legal system can take them into account.”

These first four students came home feeling like it was a life-changing experience.

“Although you cannot fully comprehend the misery these women have gone through, I can try to put myself in their shoes,” Patoni-Rees said. “That is a humbling experience.”

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For a look at what it's like at the detention center, check out The New York Times' multimedia story "Welcome to Dilley."

Writer: Joe Hadfield
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