January 11, 2011

Grant awarded for Immigration Detention Project

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Southern Illinois University School of Law recently received a grant to continue its work with detained immigrants.

The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation is providing the law school’s Immigration Detention Project $1,700 to defray costs associated with providing legal information to immigration detainees at the Tri-County Detention Center in Ullin. Volunteer law school students, faculty and when needed, translators, visit the detention center to interview detainees and asses their legal needs.

The program, which began in 2005, continues to grow, primarily due to an increasing number of detainees and scarcity of immigration service providers and attorneys in the region, said Cindy Galway Buys, an associate professor of law and director of international law programs.

The detention center regularly holds 180 to 200 immigration detainees at any time, and there are plans to hold even more, she said. In addition, the Jefferson County Correctional Facility in Mount Vernon also houses immigration detainees, and the project began visits there last year.

The program is critical, said Buys, who knows of no other immigration service providers in Southern Illinois.

“I’m very excited to receive the grant again,” Buys said. “I’m very appreciative of their support for the program.”

Buys and the students initially visited the detention center once a semester. They now visit three times a semester, with up to 30 first- through third-year law students participating.

Detainees receive basic information about the immigration system and laws to assess what they need to do, Buys said. The “Know Your Rights” packets are each about 30 pages long, in six languages, and the cost of making copies of the packet is the biggest expense. A portion of the grant funds offsets those costs.

Law school student volunteers meet with detainees for intake interviews to collect biographical data and information for initial assessments on whether a detainee has a good legal argument that might help them stay in the United States, Buys said.

Susan Burns, who is working on a Master of Law degree specializing in international law and immigration law, is one of the students assisting Buys with the project. She earned her law degree from the SIU School of Law in 2004, and worked for the Missouri State Public Defender’s office for a few years before returning to Carbondale to earn the degree. She also has a master’s degree in international law from the University of Illinois.

Burns said she has a lifelong interest in politics and international law.

Working with the project “is an invaluable opportunity to not only get practical experience in immigration law but also to provide assistance to people facing a good possibility of deportation, most of whom do not have access to legal assistance,” Burns said.

Detainees who committed serious crimes are ineligible to stay in the United States, while other detainees want to return to their home nation, Buys said. But there are a “fair number” of detainees in violation of current immigration laws only because their visa lapsed, who also have a family, job, and U.S.-born children here. Those detainees do have “legitimate claims to stay in the country,” she said.

“Those are the people we are really trying to identify,” she said. “We also usually get two or three detainees each time we visit who want to seek asylum in the United States.”

Immigration detainees do not have the automatic right of counsel that criminal defendants do, Buys said. Detainees can expect to stay at a facility like the Tri-County Detention Center for at least a month, although the length of stay is increasing because of a growing number of detainees and government inability to process people more quickly, she said.

The law school’s Immigrant Detention Project “squarely fits into the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation’s mission to provide access to the civil legal system for all in Illinois,” said Leslie Corbett, IEJF executive director. The project is one of 16 to receive funds totaling $1.66 million announced earlier this month.

State funding for civil legal aid is through the Illinois Equal Justice Act through the Illinois Attorney General’s budget. The appropriation was $3.5 million for three consecutive years but was cut 50 percent to $1.75 million last year, according to the organization.

The National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based non-profit, non-governmental organization that provides services to immigrants, contacted Buys and asked about her interest in assisting due to detainee placements in Ullin. The Chicago-based immigrant justice center already works with several other facilities. It reviews the documents that Buys forwards from detainee intake assessments for possible representation.

The National Immigrant Justice Center “would never be able to travel to the detention centers in Ullin and Mount Vernon as frequently as the SIU project,” Corbett said. “We are impressed by the impact this small grant has on a population that has no other access to legal information.”

Buys praises the students’ efforts.

“I couldn’t do it without the student volunteers,” she said. “There are just too many people we have to interview and the facility will only let us come for a couple of hours at a time. We couldn’t get all those interviews done if I didn’t have student volunteers with me. It wouldn’t be physically possible in the time that we have.”

Burns said that while working in the public defender’s office in Missouri, she found interviewing and talking with clients to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the legal profession -- much like listening to the immigration detainees’ stories.

“It helps remind me of the reasons I went to law school in the first place,” said Burns, who hopes to remain in Carbondale and practice immigration law after she graduates.

“For law students, the project provides an excellent opportunity to interview ‘real world’ clients and gain some exposure to immigration law,” Burns said. “Even if an SIU School of Law grad does not practice immigration law … it’s important to have some knowledge of how immigration issues may affect other legal issues a client may have.”

Buys said she believes many Americans have a misconception that immigration detainees have access to legal counsel as do criminal defendants, and that many detainees are criminals when, in fact, they have no criminal record. While not a criminal activity, detainees, who violate immigrations laws by overstaying a visa, still need to know there are consequences. Most of the detainees who Buys and the students see do not have attorneys, may be far from family and friends who live in the United States, and have very little contact with the outside world, she said.

“It’s very difficult for these people to be placed in detention when they don’t have a criminal record; they feel ‘why is the country treating me this way/’” Buys said.

For more information on the program contact Buys by email at cbuys@law.siu.edu.