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Supporting Vital Immigrant Defense

June 24, 2024

Penn Carey Law Transnational Legal Clinic at the Southern Poverty Law Center
Penn Carey Law Transnational Legal Clinic at the Southern Poverty Law Center

This spring, the Transnational Legal Clinic traveled to Georgia to assist the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work representing immigrant detainees.

Led by Sarah Paoletti, Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic (TLC), University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students enrolled in the TLC recently traveled to Georgia to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). TLC students spent the semester learning immigration law while serving clients seeking asylum and other forms of immigration relief. SIFI provides legal assistance to immigrants detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia as well as other immigrant detention centers across the South.

For some of the immigrants at Stewart, the students provided individuals their first opportunity since being detained to communicate with anyone—let alone someone providing legal assistance—in their native language.

Penn Carey Law Transnational Legal Clinic students working in Lumpkin, GA “You will never realize how important free legal service and free language services are to a person in need until you appear before them and see their face visibly light up at hearing their language and realizing that they have someone to rely on in a completely unfamiliar land,” said Indumini Randeny LLM’24, who spoke French and Sinhala with detained immigrants during the trip.

Alongside the “small but mighty” SPLC SIFI team, as well as clinical faculty and the clinic’s social work supervisor, the TLC students conducted intake screenings, prepared bond motions, and provided pro se assistance on an application for relief from deportation.

“We are so grateful for the support of the Transnational Legal Clinic at UPenn,” said Erin Argueta L’09, SIFI Senior Lead Attorney. “Their week in Lumpkin, Georgia is not only a huge capacity boost to our four-person office in terms of meeting with detained individuals and preparing their cases for court, but it is also an important act of solidarity with the thousands of people detained and silenced in remote detention centers. The students met with people in eight languages, in some cases being the only person that individual would get to speak to in their own language while detained. It’s important for the migrants, their families and communities, the immigration court, and ICE to know that we are here to bear witness and defend against the abuses and lack of due process all too common at Stewart.”

The service immersion trip also served to help students contextualize the work with their individual clients while also drawing connections with TLC’s broader human rights advocacy work.

“We have long engaged in a range of advocacy alongside partner organizations and individuals addressing the internationally-recognized human rights of individuals subjected to immigration detention in the United States, and challenging rights abuses endemic to the system of immigration enforcement and detention,” said Paoletti. “Our service immersion trips help connect that advocacy before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and different U.N. Human Rights mechanisms to the actual lived experiences of those subjected to detention.”

This was the clinic’s second trip to Stewart Detention Center, but TLC has taken students on service immersion trips since fall 2018, when they went to a detention center in Berks County, less than 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Regarding that trip, Paoletti noted, “It was important to me that we recognize and address the legal needs of immigrants subjected to detention in our own backyard, particularly as the focus of so many law schools, law firms, and other members of the private bar (as well as the media) was and continues to be on the situation at the U.S. / Mexico border. Rights violations similar to those reported out of detention centers along the southern border are being carried out in detention facilities in rural and isolated communities in Pennsylvania, and across the country.”

Through the service immersion trips, students gain a unique understanding of the country’s immigration detention system, as well as its human impacts. They experience how clinical education combines theory and practice, and academic learning pairs with the practical skills of how to be a lawyer.

Most of all, though, students remarked that the trip gave them a deeper perspective on the impact that their work can have.

“I could empathize with the loss of freedom, power, and disorientation that the four individuals I interviewed for potential asylum claims experienced on a day-to-day basis,” said Victoria Chandra L’25. “One day, phone chargers would not be allowed into client meeting rooms, and on another day, they would be. Cell service was unreliable, even though we depended on it for language interpretation and communication.

“This service immersion trip made me realize firsthand of the dire need for competent legal representation,” Chandra added. “People who have been detained are navigating a confusing, intricate system, often in a language that is not their own. They need legal staff willing to fight on their behalf.”

For Randeny, the trip offered a deeper understanding of the work.

“Lawyering is more than appearing before the judge and making nuanced legal arguments,” Randeny said. “It is about being there for someone who wants to be heard.”

Learn more about the impactful work of Penn Carey Law’s Transnational Legal Clinic.