Immigration Clinic Students Win Release of Mother Held in Shocking Jail Conditions

Immigration Clinic students Ashley Plotkin, Abbey Schultz, & David Mancia-Orellana

Immigration Clinic students Ashley Plotkin, Abbey Schultz, & David Mancia-Orellana

Students with an interest in immigration law and litigation get hands-on experience in the Immigration Clinic. Clinic students at the University of Miami School of Law Immigration Clinic won the release of a Mexican woman from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention at Baker County jail, near Jacksonville. While in detention, the client reported concerns relating to inadequate living conditions, appropriate food, medical and mental health care, and proper COVID-19 protocols.

After receiving the client’s intake application late last semester, a team of clinic students led by 3L and clinic fellow David Mancia-Orellana worked tirelessly to prepare the client’s case from start to finish. The team included students Benjamin Brooks, 2L, Alejandra Gonzales, 2L, Ashley Plotkin, 3L, Abbey Schultz, 2L, and Danny Valentin, 2L.

“After learning our client’s story during the presentation of her intake, we felt compelled to help,” said Mancia-Orellana. “Despite the uphill battle we faced in preparing the case before Fall 2021 finals, our team was determined to help get our client out of detention.”

The team quickly jumped into action to prepare the case, arguing that their client did not fall within the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement priorities.

“To succeed with prosecutorial discretion, we needed to advocate for our client as a person worthy of the government’s empathy. We spent hours learning every detail of her story,” said Plotkin, “We spoke with her on the phone weekly, and we interviewed and took declarations from her family members.”

Over the course of the next month, Mancia-Orellana and Shultz drove weekly (two hours each way) to meet with the client at Glades Detention Center, a medium security county jail that detains immigrants for the federal government. After a month of intense preparation, the team was able to successfully complete a strong prosecutorial discretion petition.

“We felt sure that all the sleepless nights and countless hours working on gathering evidence and working on the request would be worth it,” said Brooks. However, shortly before the holidays, the team learned the Miami ICE office had denied the client’s prosecutorial discretion petition without explanation, moved the client’s case to the Orlando Immigration court, and transferred her to the Baker County jail near Jacksonville.

Previous investigations into Baker County jail revealed that detainees are housed in dangerous and inhumane conditions. In a 2020 report released by the Office of the Inspector General, many serious issues were identified: inappropriate use of solitary confinement, poor grievance and communication systems, and unsafe living conditions that not only violate ICE detention standards but pose a health and safety risk to detainees.

“It was very frustrating to receive a denial of our client’s case without an explanation,” said Gonzalez. "Our client had many sympathetic facts that we believed merited a favorable grant of discretion. For example, she was the victim of multiple shockingly violent crimes here in the U.S., such as rape and kidnapping, and she suffered from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is also the mother of a U.S. citizen daughter with cystic fibrosis and a U.S. citizen son who has been struggling with gender identity issues. Nevertheless, the battle for her release continued after the initial denial.”

After the prosecutorial discretion denial, the team focused their attention to obtaining Asylum, Withholding of Removal, and Convention Against Torture relief for the client, arguing that she faced persecution and torture in Mexico.

“We mobilized before the start of the spring semester to prepare for her new merits hearing because we had about one month to prepare. We crafted our arguments, drafted a legal memorandum arguing our position, and filed country condition reports highlighting the abuses our client would face if returned to Mexico on account of her severe mental illnesses. It was great to see the team come together before the start of the semester to continue to work on getting our client released. It really illustrates the culture Dean Rebecca Sharpless and Associate Director Romy Learner have cultivated at our clinic,” said Mancia-Orellana.

“Initially, I was disappointed that our prosecutorial discretion application was denied but continuing her case allowed the team to work on several different avenues of humanitarian relief for our client. In the process, I was able to prepare for a hearing where I would examine a forensic psychiatrist as an expert witness for our client. But most importantly, and to our client’s benefit, our hard work was noticed,” said Plotkin.

On February 18, 2022, Mancia-Orellana, Schultz, and Plotkin, together with Sharpless, traveled to Orlando to represent their client in court. “After four weeks of hard work and preparation, our team was ready to litigate our client’s case. I was excited to get the full experience related to an asylum case and litigate the merits of her case. However, on our client’s hearing date, before we walked into the courtroom, the DHS attorney informed us that he was reconsidering prosecutorial discretion,” said Mancia-Orellana.

A week later, ICE informed Sharpless that the prior denial of the client’s prosecutorial discretion petition was reversed, leaving her as a lawful permanent resident. “Even though our team was prepared to argue the merits of our client’s hearing, we gained an important lesson. Always be prepared: to argue your case and for surprises that can arise minutes before court,” said Mancia-Orellana.

“One thing I took away from this experience is if it’s challenging you, testing you, and pushing you, it is helping you to become more of who you are meant to be,” Schultz said. “In this case specifically, it helped me to become a better lawyer in the fight for justice.”

Six students in the Immigration Clinic have a trip planned at the beginning of April to Baker County jail to visit the jail and speak with detained immigrants.

The Immigration Clinic is part of Miami Law’s clinical program in which second- and third-year students represent clients and work on advocacy projects under the supervision of faculty members. Students interested in applying for a Miami Law clinic should visit the webpage of the clinical program.

Read more about Miami Law's Immigration Clinic

Read more about Miami Law's Immigration Law Program