Immigration Clinic Students Go to Jail - Advocacy in the Florida Keys

Meredith Hoffman 3L, Nestor Perez 3L, Olivia Parise 2L, Katarina Gomez 2L, Jimmy Camilus 2L, Jessica Gomez 3L, Maria Llorens 2L
Meredith Hoffman 3L, Nestor Perez 3L, Olivia Parise 2L, Katarina Gomez 2L, Jimmy Camilus 2L, Jessica Gomez 3L, Maria Llorens 2L

Miami Law’s Immigration Clinic traveled to Monroe Detention Center in Key West, Florida, to meet with immigrants detained in the facility. With the support of clinic director Rebecca Sharpless and volunteer attorneys, the students educated the immigration detainees through Know Your Rights presentations, gathered information about facility conditions, and individually met with detainees to review their cases.

Monroe Detention Center, a county jail, has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain dozens of men in the facility for immigration violations. Unlike those held for criminal charges, who can request public defenders to represent them, the immigrants have no guaranteed access to counsel--and nearly all of the men the clinic met had no lawyers to help them fight deportation.

“Visiting the ICE detainees was a sobering look at the magnitude of underserved legal needs in the immigration system,” said clinic student Nestor Perez. “We need a call to action and legal reform if the government is to uphold due process.”

Many of the men in Monroe had already lived in the United States for decades, had family in the U.S., and had little to no understanding of how to fight their cases. Desperate for insight, the detainees packed the room where the clinic held its sessions until the guards cleared out the group at 5 p.m. The students, meanwhile, faced the stark reality that as immigration attorneys, they would often be the bearers of harsh news.

“The last man I met with when we had only 20 minutes left at the facility, had a U.S. citizen wife and daughter, and had been picked up for a DUI when officials found he was undocumented,” clinic student Meredith Hoffman, one of the trip’s organizers, said. After consulting with Professor Sharpless about his case, Hoffman had to tell the man that, despite his marriage, there was no defense to his deportation besides voluntary departure because of how he had entered the country.

“He started crying and smiling at the same time, asking, ‘That’s really my best option?’” Hoffman recalled.

In other cases, however, the clinic found legal relief available to the men and is in the process of connecting them with pro bono attorneys to potentially take on their cases.

There is a tremendous need for immigration advocacy in the Florida Keys, which is at least a three-hour drive from Miami. There is a lack of legal aid close to Monroe County, which detains almost 90 immigrants on a daily basis. “We are working to implement a plan through the clinic to provide continued advocacy to the detainees in Monroe,” noted one of the trip’s organizers, Olivia Parise. “This trip opened our eyes to the needs of detained persons, their stories moved us, and we left them with the promise, ‘la lucha sigue (the fight continues).’”

Established in the fall of 2009, Miami Law’s Immigration Clinic provides a challenging opportunity for students to advocate on behalf of immigrants in a wide variety of complex immigration proceedings. In addition to helping individual clients, students collaborate with other immigrant rights groups on projects that reform the law and advance the cause of social justice for immigrants.