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Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic aids asylum seekers held in detention center

Students in the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic spent Sept. 30 through Oct. 4 serving as advocates for families beginning the asylum process at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania.
Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic at the Berks County Residential Center

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Students in the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic spent Sept. 30 through Oct. 4 serving as advocates for families about to undergo their credible fear interviews at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Under the supervision of Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the clinic, Penn State Law students worked up to 20 hours a day, helping immigrant families who are seeking asylum to understand the purpose of the credible fear interview and get comfortable with sharing their traumatic experiences from their home countries.

As of Oct. 11, five of the more than 12 families the clinic assisted had cleared their fear interviews and were released from custody to be scheduled for a hearing before an immigration judge at which they can pursue asylum.

Under the federal immigration statute, any person in the United States may apply for asylum, which is defined as a process for people who fear return to their home country. Asylum is not available to everyone; only to those who can show persecution by their home government—or a group the government is unable or unwilling to control—because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Families who arrive in the United States without a visa or permission to enter, but who fear return to their home countries must be referred to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview with the asylum office.  

Berks is one of three family detention centers in the United States. It houses mothers, fathers, and children who are being held in immigration custody. Working with ALDEA, The People’s Justice Center, the clinic students spent four days there, preparing families for their credible fear interviews.

The students met with families and individuals, including children as young as 2, to help them identify “nexus,” which is the requirement under immigration law that those granted asylum must have a reasonable fear of returning home that is based on their status as a member of a particular social group. The students found these meetings, and the entire experience, to be enlightening, rewarding, and frustrating.

“The week was a densely packed cluster of experiences. I still find myself processing everything that happened there, and how I felt about it. There are some moments that stand out more clearly than others,” said clinic 3L Chase Crowley. “I remember seeing a 13-year-old boy waiting for his mother while she was in her credible fear interview. He spoke no English or Spanish, so no one was able to do more than gesture to communicate with him. I remember the moment that a traumatized two-year-old was taken away by a guard while her father was being interviewed. I remember asking a father who had come with one child why he had not brought the others. He was looking me in the eyes, but dropped his head when he explained that he did not have the resources to bring more than one.

“These memories and others come back to me at different moments throughout the day. I’m still processing the scope of our work, but I’m satisfied to know that, at least for a few people, we made a difference.”

“I think my experience this week was one of the most life changing experiences I’ve ever had, and I will never be able to forget it,” said clinic 2L Shanjida Chowdhury. “It’s made me realize that I really do have a passion for advocating for immigrants’ rights. This was an immersive experience, and it was experiential learning at its best. And I look forward to embarking on a career that allows me to do the work I did this week.”

“As a teacher, I am so proud of the students for their resilience and stamina during an intense and unpredictable time.” said Wadhia. “They were supportive of each other and connected with detainees in meaningful and important ways before asking questions about their lives and the lives of their children.”

While in Leesport, Wadhia and the students kept a daily journal to archive their experiences. Once edited, the journal will be available on the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic website.

An event will be held on November 1 at 4:00 p.m. where questions can be asked of members of the clinic. The event is titled: "Inside Family Detention: Stories From the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic" and will be held in the Sutliff Auditorium in the Lewis Katz Building in University Park, PA.

Founded by Wadhia in 2008, the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is one of nine law clinics at Penn State Law that allow students to learn through experience under the guidance of clinical faculty. Under Wadhia’s supervision, students in the clinic engage in community outreach and education on topics such as immigration remedies for victims of crimes and changing immigration policy. The clinic also provides legal support in individual cases of immigrants challenging deportation (removal) or seeking protection through the Department of Homeland Security and in the courts.

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