Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Spring Break Pro Bono Trip

Three students win the David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Team Award

Via Harvard Law Today 

David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Team Award winners pictured left to right: Lisandra Novo ’19, Lindsay Bailey ’19, Elisa Quiroz ’19 Credit: Lorin Granger

By: Alexis Farmer

Lindsay Bailey ’19, Lisandra Novo ’19 and Elisa Quiroz ’19 are the winners of the 2019 David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Team Award. The award, named in honor of the late Clinical Professor of Law David Grossman ’88, a public interest lawyer dedicated to providing high-quality legal services to low-income communities, recognizes students who have demonstrated excellence in representing individual clients and undertaking advocacy or policy reform projects.

The trio was honored for their exceptional work with the International Human Rights Clinic on a complicated lawsuit, Mamani, et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín. The Mamani case was litigated in U.S. federal court on behalf of the family members of Bolivian citizens who were killed by the Bolivian military in 2003. The suit brought claims against Bolivia’s former president and minister of defense for their roles in orchestrating these killings.

Over the course of two years, the students were involved in many aspects of the case — from discovery and depositions, to summary judgment, to a month-long trial, to the current appeal.

Professor Susan Farbstein praised their advanced level of legal analysis, judgment, creativity, and empathy with clients. “Together, Lindsay, Lisandra, and Elisa have demonstrated all the hallmarks of thoughtful, critical, and reflective human rights advocacy,” she said. “They have done it as a team which is, in fact, the only way real change ever happens. Each of them is whip smart, passionate, and committed, and can be depended on to tackle the toughest assignments with rigor and produce the highest quality of work. Yet together, they are even greater than the sum of their individual talents.”


Lindsay Bailey

Lindsay Bailey has long been actively involved in international human rights focused organizations. Prior to HLS, she spent three years in Ghana working with municipal governments to improve project planning, budgeting, and municipal taxes. In Ghana she worked for a variety of organizations, including Engineers Without Borders Amplify Governance, Global Communities, and UNICEF.

Since beginning law school, she has spent four semesters in the International Human Rights Clinic, volunteered with HLS Advocates for Human Rights for two years, and has been a research assistant at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (HLS PILAC). She currently serves as the co-president of the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS).

Bailey spent a winter Independent Clinical with the Public International Law and Policy Group in Jordan as part of the Reginald F. Lewis Internship Program. She also was an article editor on the Harvard Human Rights Journal, and an article editor and community development director for the Harvard International Law Journal, in which she published an article, “Can There Be an Accidental Extrajudicial Killing? Understanding standards of intent in the Torture Victim Protection Act” last August. Next year, Bailey will continue her work in human rights litigation at the Center for Justice and Accountability.


Lisandra Novo

Born in Cuba, Lisandra Novo narrowed her interest in international human rights and criminal law early on, focusing particularly on accountability for human rights violations committed by state officials. She was awarded a Chayes Fellowship in 2017 to work at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica. There she worked primarily on cases related to the justiciability of social, cultural and economic rights. In her first year at HLS, she was a member of the Harvard Immigration Project’s Removal Defense Project (HIP’s RDP), an interpreter for the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC), co-communications chair for the Harvard European Law Association (HELA), and an article editor for the Harvard International Law Journal’s Online Symposium on the crime of aggression. She spent the fall semester of her third year at the Graduate Institute for International Law and Development in Geneva, Switzerland. Novo and Quiroz both participated in a spring break pro bono trip in Puerto Rico for hurricane relief work in March 2019. After graduation she will be conducting independent research on enforced disappearances in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow.


Elisa Quiroz

Elisa Quiroz had an interest in pursuing a career in international human rights work long before coming to HLS. Her childhood in Chile exposed her to human rights issues early on. “If you grow up in a country that has lived through a dictatorship, you hear the stories all the time, and that makes human rights law very tangible in a way that maybe countries that are more removed from that experience don’t know,” she told Harvard Law Today. In 2017, Quiroz was also awarded a Chayes Fellowship to work in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva (OHCHR). At OHCHR, Quiroz worked on projects with the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, independence of judges and lawyers, the right to health, and the right to education. During her 2L year, she was awarded a Human Rights Program travel grant to conduct research in Chile examining the government’s legislative and policy responses to the country’s rapid rise in migration. Next year, she will be working as a legal fellow at TRIAL International in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Friendo y comiendo” in Puerto Rico—my experience at the FOMB

By: Eloi Colldeforns Papiol, LLM ’19

Eloi in front of a sign at the FOMB.

When our plane landed in San Juan, a warm breeze welcomed us. Accompanied by the evening calls of the tiny coquí frogs, an island full of natural and cultural wonders revealed itself, and we were soon embraced by the hospitality of the Boricuas.

As one of the ten J.D./LL.M. Harvard Law students participating in the Spring break pro bono trip to Puerto Rico in March 2019, I realized that I had to (partially) resist indulging in tourist pleasures. My mission was to spend four days at the Financial Oversight Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB) doing legal work, and I wanted to make my stay there as useful as possible.

Three students standing in front of the San Felipe del Morro fort.

Maria, Andy, Brian, and Eloi on their way to the Fuerte San Felipe del Morro.

But the FOMB, frequently referred to by some Puerto Ricans as la Junta (after its name in Spanish, Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera), is no ordinary place to work. Created in 2016 under the federal statute Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA (48 U.S.C. 20)), the FOMB is entrusted with finding a way for Puerto Rico to “achieve fiscal responsibility and access to the capital markets.” Easier said than done. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with more than $70 billion in public debt, is facing a large debt restructuring effort, and its shrinking economy does not offer the best prospects. 40% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line (with an unemployment rate that more than doubles the U.S. average), access to electricity is expensive and unreliable (the street where our hostel was located had a couple of power cuts during our stay) and the island’s infrastructure was seriously affected by the devastating Hurricane María in 2017.

Revamping Puerto Rico’s economy is an overwhelming challenge for the FOMB, the Puerto Rican government and the United States in general. A challenge thus beyond the reach of a single foreign lawyer, like me, who had just tried his first—but delicious—mofongo. Being a qualified Spanish-law practitioner in Barcelona and having taken an HLS course on the Regulation of Financial Institutions were my only, very modest, credentials. I would only have four days to get to know my FOMB colleagues, become familiar with Puerto Rico’s 148-page fiscal plan, and mentally disentangle the complexities of Puerto Rico’s mixed and bilingual legal system—English for U.S. federal law, and Spanish for Puerto Rico’s civil law, which is strongly modeled after the Spanish civil code.

As if this was not enough, I was also confronted with unexpected situations. On my second day, a group of nearly twenty protesters wearing T-shirts with the face of the (late) independence activist Lolita Lebrón gathered in front of our building and a police cordon was deployed. No violence ensued, but those facts opened my eyes to a reality that I had ignored: the FOMB’s role in Puerto Rico is politically controversial.

Some perceive it as an external force that interferes with the role of democratically-elected Puerto Rican institutions. After all, while the FOMB is an entity formally ascribed to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—as opposed to a U.S. federal agency or instrumentality—its seven members were appointed by former U.S. President Obama (six from a list provided by congressional leaders and one in his “sole discretion”). The President and the Congress are two institutions in which Puerto Ricans have no voting representation. Others, in contrast, consider the FOMB a necessary tool to address Puerto Rico’s inadmissible debt financing levels, public sector and structural deficiencies, and the only way to ensure an optimal spending of the federal funds received by the island.

This confrontation reflects a characteristic tension in Puerto Rico’s unique situation as an Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State, a meaning which the official term of “Commonwealth” fails to capture). This tension looms over the somewhat difficult institutional relations between the FOMB, run by its executive director Natalie Jaresko, and the Puerto Rican government, led by Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Eloi with Exeuctive Director Natalie Jaresko

In light of this institutional struggle, the ultimate purpose of my legal work at the FOMB was to help achieve collaboration with the Puerto Rico government. There was a clear connection between the tasks that I was assigned and the legal challenges and uncertainties that the FOMB has to resolve to fulfil its congressional mandate.

Having had the opportunity to participate, even if briefly, in the examination of key legal issues during this critical time for the future of Puerto Rico is a unique learning experience that I will never forget. Nor will I forget the people that I met at the FOMB. The members of the elite team assembled by Natalie Jaresko possess not only a superb technical expertise, but also an admirable degree of courage, determination and commitment to their mission. Extraordinary men and women who firmly believe that “Puerto Rico will shine again,” as the banner outside their office reminds them every day. And so, when my fourth—and final—day arrived, I left the FOMB with the feeling that I had been in the right place, at the right time.

Puerto Ricans have a saying, friendo y comiendo (i.e., frying while eating), which figuratively means that some things must be done right away, without excessive consideration. They know exactly when to apply this philosophy, and so did the FOMB with my integration process. I was treated like one of their own family since the very first day. Special thanks go to Sebastián Negrón for making this collaboration possible, and to my FOMB colleague Jean-Carlos “JC” García-Rosa, for his unconditional help and friendship.

JC and Eloi at the office. Credit: Alexis Farmer

This friendo y comiendo philosophy allowed me not only to work on legal issues of relevance to the FOMB, but also to have a coffee with Alejandro García Padilla, the former Governor of Puerto Rico, and Emiliano Trigo-Fritz, who worked closely with him when he was in office, but currently advises the FOMB. I was also invited by my colleague JC to teach a Corporations class at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, where he is a lecturer.

The last days of this unforgettable Spring break trip rewarded me with other memorable experiences, like the visit of the communities around the Caño Martín Peña that were affected by Hurricane María, an afternoon hike in the beautiful El Yunque rainforest and the discovery of the Playa Flamenco in Culebra island and its turquoise waters.

The whole HLS group at El Yunque rainforest. Credit: Alexis Farmer

Gracias, Puerto Rico, ¡y hasta siempre!

Spring Break 2019: Private Probation in Giles County

By: Jimmy Biblarz J.D. ‘21

Source: Pixabay

The informal slogan I heard from respondents was “Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.” In Pulaski, Tennessee, private probation has wreaked havoc on the community. A federal-class action lawsuit which claims that two private probation services companies have extorted money from impoverished people to generate profit, is trying to change that.

I spent a week in Pulaski, Tennessee working with Civil Rights Corps, one of the three groups of lawyers bringing the suit, was extraordinarily rewarding and educational on four levels. 1) issue exposure (private probation), 2) legal investigative and evidence gathering skill-building, 3) legal strategy skill-building, 4) exposure to inspiring mentors and a unique organizational model.

(1) Before this trip, I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. We dove right in to the issues, and were tasked with driving around Tennessee (over 200 miles on some days) looking for people who had been affected by the scheme. While the amounts people couldn’t pay were seemingly small (often just $45/month), for individuals on fixed incomes, these amounts were prohibitive.

(2) I was doing the type of legal work you don’t often get exposed to as a 1L – the actual work of putting a case together. Over the course of the week, I spoke with directly impacted people, interviewing them about their experiences with the criminal legal system. I honed my interview skills in a very short amount of time – I thought through how to get people to engage with me across a wide social distance, and developed strategies for getting people to talk to me who were rightfully mistrustful of any and all “authority.” I had to work to build trust; these people were rightfully suspicious of anyone knocking on their door. I saw firsthand just how nuanced individual stories are, and how critical individual facts are to the stories lawyers try to tell. I will remember these conversations in future brief writing and less “on the ground” work.

(3) Not only was the week built on direct client interaction work, there was time for other legal skill building. I started to learn the rules of reciprocal civil discovery, and how they come into play in class action lawsuits.

In particular, I feel lucky to count Alison Horn, an Investigative Supervisor, and Jonas Wang, an Attorney, as friends and mentors. I went out investigating with Alison on the first day, and I quickly saw what a skilled interviewer and evidence collector she is. I learned just how essential the facts are to a case. Jonas is an incredible attorney – he is able to see the forest and the trees at the same time, and to think two steps ahead of whatever we were doing. He is patient and thoughtful, a careful writer, and clearly deeply committed to individual clients.

Civil Rights Corps is an amazing organizational model, combining direct service with impact litigation. I was inspired by how unwilling the organization is to lose sight of the actual people affected by the issues they’re working on. This spring break experience gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.

Spring Break of Service: HLS Students Take Their Pro Bono Work on the Road

By: Alexis Farmer

 

“I found it very rewarding to be doing work that actually helped people in detention,” said Joseph Tahbaz JD ’20. He was one of the 36 students who participated in the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ (OCP) spring break pro bono trips. Every year, a group of students spend their spring break working in legal organizations in the Boston area and across the United States and Puerto Rico, often responding to crises or disasters in local areas. The time spent outside of the halls of Harvard Law School can be re-energizing and reinforce the skills students learn in the classroom. Students were glad to be “doing substantive, real-life work that helped folks,” Tahbaz continued.

Students worked on an array of legal and social justice issues – from asylum claims, to debt collection statistics, bankruptcy and family law, and federal community development block grants for Puerto Rico. Many of the students did not know one another before getting on the plane to their respective destinations, but in just five days, students gained mentors and friends. “There was a great mix of students in our group, with JDs of every year as well as LLMs. The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives among students on the trip really added to the experience,” said Amanda Odasz, JD ’21. Students felt integrated into their organizations – attending staff meetings, contributing to legal strategies, and meeting members of the communities they were serving.

Students pictured with the staff at American Gateways

Walking through the ocean-front neighborhood of Condado, San Juan, it’s easy to forget a massive hurricane wreaked havoc on the island. Restaurants and small businesses are occupied with locals and tourists. Homes appear intact and the streets look freshly paved. Yet, many communities have yet to see any restoration. Just a few miles south, the put-togetherness of Condado fades. Half of the student group that traveled to Puerto Rico worked with Corporación ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, an organization working on environmental restoration and sustainability for the communities surrounding El Caño Martín Peña, a polluted tidal channel at the center of the community. “[My] teammates and I were able to put our legal expertise and prior interests into practice while at the same time being able to tackle a pressing social issue that is affecting a group of low-income and unprotected residents in Puerto Rico,” said Alvaro Emilio Rojas Cuenca LLM ’19 who worked with ENLACE. Two students in Ponce, Puerto Rico were exposed to multiple parts of city government – interacting with the mayor and her legal team, the city council, and the legislative body of the municipality. Another student worked with the hotly contested financial oversight management board tasked with restructuring the island’s debt. “The trip was more than I expected. We faced challenging, yet rewarding, legal questions, and also got the time to get to know Puerto Rico,” said Gonzalo Robles, LLM ’19.

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella, Environmental Affairs Manager at ENLACE (middle). Credit: Alexis Farmer

Twelve students traveled to the Texas-Mexico border working with asylum seekers – 8 with American Gateways and 4 with ProBAR. American Gateways, a nonprofit organization that provides immigration legal services to low-income individuals and families throughout the Texas region. Students worked with individuals seeking asylum, a few having done so in their clinical work. “HIRC [the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic] prepared me extremely well for this work,” said Krista Oehlke JD ‘20. The significance of their work is heightened by the fact that immigrants in detention, particularly in remote locations, are the least likely to secure legal representation. Oehlke commented, “I was able to help asylum seekers in a very concrete way.” According to a 2015 study in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, only 14% of detained immigrants had legal representation. 2% of immigrants obtained pro bono representation from law school clinical, nonprofit organizations, and law firm volunteer opportunities.

Students working at American Gateways during spring break 2019

Civil Rights Corps employs advocacy, public education, and systemic civil rights litigation to challenge the injustice of the criminal justice system. Students assisted attorneys in their lawsuit against two private probation companies in Tennessee, contending that the companies “extort impoverished people to generate profit” to fund its court system. Jimmy Biblarz a first-year law student reflected, “I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. Private probation has wreaked havoc on the Pulaski community – it seemed like nearly everyone in town was on probation. The informal slogan I heard from respondents was ‘Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.’ The week gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.”

Students traveled to Giles County, Tennessee to assist with a class-action lawsuit against private probation

In North Carolina, four students worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina. The organization provides free legal help to low-income North Carolinians in civil cases. The students worked on the office’s disaster relief efforts from Hurricane Florence and also researched housing and gentrification issues in mobile home parks. Students were able to attend a community organizing event that brought together tenants in mobile home parks with legal aid advocates to brainstorm solutions.

Students didn’t have to travel far to make an impact. On just the other side of the state, Jonathan Korn, JD ’20 spent his spring break in Springfield, MA, working with the new Consumer Debt Initiative through the Hampden County Bar Association. Working with Western Massachusetts Law School students, Jonathan represented underserved individuals facing housing, civil, probate and family law matters, as well as individuals with day-of evictions hearings in the Lawyer of the Day program. Locally in the Boston area, students contributed to working to close the access to justice gap at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Project Citizenship.

Jonathan Korn JD ’20 (second from the right in the top row) pictured with students from Western New England Law School at the Roderick J. Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, MA.

Learn more about student experiences below:

See more photos here.

 

Needing Proof of Property Ownership in Puerto Rico

By: Daniel Oyolu JD ‘21

From left to right: Brian Beaton, JD ’21, Mayor Mayita Meléndez, and Daniel Oyolu JD ’21

When I first learned that there would be a Spring Break Pro Bono trip taking students to Puerto Rico, I felt compelled to apply. I had followed the slow recovery of the island post Hurricane Maria and was excited to have an opportunity to do pro bono work in service to the island. My partner, Brian Beaton, and I worked with the municipal government of Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico.

We helped the municipality interview residents who were in need of FEMA assistance, but did not have the titles to their home. We learned more about each client’s story and updated their files to ensure the transfer of title occurs properly. According to Reuters a 2007 study found that an estimated 55 percent of properties on the island are informal.

Brian and Daniel interview a client

Brian and Daniel interview a client

In Puerto Rico, many homes have been passed down for generations, built without permits of a title. Community members found undeveloped plots of land had not yet been developed and began constructing their own residences without formal permission. Many residents have lived these communities for decades, but do not have a proper deed of title to the land. In the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria, not having title to your land complicates and potentially eliminates the possibility of receiving resources from FEMA. The Municipality of Ponce has been working to grant land titles and transfer ownership to one of its informal communities. The residents had been organizing for decades to get land titles from the Municipality and it felt like finally they had reached the final stages of the process. Since the hurricane, the process has been expedited. If another natural disaster occurs, the residents will hopefully not face the same obstacles in receiving relief.

The trip also functioned as a primer on Puerto Rican local government. We spent most of our time with Ponce’s legal department who managed the project of title transfers. Additionally, we had the opportunity to meet the mayor of the city, Mayita Melendéz, who welcomed us to Ponce and encouraged us to take in all of Ponce’s beautiful colonial architecture. We met members of the municipality’s legislature (the equivalent of a city council) and sat through a live session. All of the legislators graciously welcomed us and allowed us to listen and observe as they deliberated over different proposals to move Ponce forward economically. Despite the conversation getting contentious at times, it was clear that the legislators shared a sense of camaraderie. We also sat in on a couple of cases in a local court and met a judge.

Overall, our trip allowed us to see different layers to Ponce, from the ordinary citizen making ends meet, to the government officials deciding the direction of the city. Although the impact of Hurricane Maria could still be felt, the people of Ponce have resiliently weathered the storm. Their hope in the future of their city seemed as strong as ever. They welcomed me with open arms, and readily shared their life experiences, while curiously listening to my own.

We study law, not in a vacuum, but in a world where laws directly impact the lives of citizens no matter who they are. Our trip to Ponce allowed us to see an initiative in which city lawyers were working to respond to the needs and concerns of the citizens and prepare them for the future. I’m thankful to the City of Ponce, Licenciada Lorraine Bengoa Toro and her team of lawyers, as well as the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs for this incredible opportunity.

Facing unexpected realities in North Carolina

By: Merve Ciplak J.D. ’21

Photo of mobile homes

Credit: Lee Mestre

As an international student that had never been to the South, my understanding of North Carolina was limited to what I had heard about Charlotte, the universities, and the food. But from my experience in Pembroke, I learned about the extent of rural poverty and hardship in a community that I really did not have much understanding or awareness of, and a side of America that is probably unknown to many students coming from abroad like myself. My experience was incredibly invaluable as a result of this stark exposure.

Over spring break, I got to work with the Legal Aid of North Carolina in their Pembroke office. We were placed within the office’s disaster relief efforts and set out with the intention of supporting the Hurricane Florence relief efforts, but quickly found ourselves involved in a number of housing and gentrification issues and community organizing efforts.

Credit: Merve Ciplak

The Pembroke office oversees cases in some of the poorest and most rural counties in North Carolina: Hoke, Scotland, and Robeson. According to the information our supervisor gave us, over 30% of the residents of Robeson County live in mobile home parks. The counties are also incredibly racially and ethnically diverse and Pembroke is home to the Lumbee, a state-recognized tribe. On the surface, it seemed like North Carolina needed legal help with FEMA appeals in recovering from Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). We quickly realized, however, that the hurricanes had brought more pervasive issues to the surface. We ended up working on a mobile home park gentrification issue. The research we conducted uncovered that more than 20 of the parks in Robeson County have been bought up by a single company since 2017, and residents are being forced out of their homes with rapidly increasing rents despite homes that remain in very bad shape after the hurricanes. A site visit we conducted at one of the parks really brought the whole thing and the conditions people are forced to live in to life for me.

 

Credit: Merve Ciplak

The most surprising thing, however, was probably the level of community engagement and organizing that we saw is taking place around gentrification. We attended a regularly-hosted community organizing event where tenants affected by this mobile home park company, community organizers and lawyers come up with solutions.  I’ve been exposed to a number of community organizing events in the Harvard community, but I realized how different these events are when the organizers are members of the impacted community themselves. The mix of frustration, urgency, motivation, and hope in the air was one I had never felt before, with the forty or so attendants sharing their frustrations to come together and lift each other up. The event also laid out the true extents and limits of legal intervention into issues like this; at some point, efforts need to go beyond what the law can provide and are cross-institutional and truly societal.

Working in a local office with people that had incredible ties to and passion for their community was a really great opportunity, especially given that our main supervisor was Lumbee himself. The people we worked with exposed us to so much Southern hospitality and a willingness to share the realities of the community they were a part of, and really made sure we understood the nuances of the environment we were working in. This exposure to the community from the inside is probably the part of my experience that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire any other way, and the most valuable part overall.

 

Against All Odds at the South Texas Detention Center

By: Krista Oehlke J.D. ‘20

Exit sign for Pearsall

Credit: Krista Oehlke

Most immigrants at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, Texas will bide their time, in limbo, for months: they will don prison uniforms, they will go outside and see the light of day only once a week if they are lucky (the detention center is windowless), and they will scour the law library so that they can represent themselves in Immigration Court. Residents at STDC do not have access to the internet; however, reports on current conditions in their home countries serve as vital corroboration for their claims that returning back to their country would be dangerous or fatal. When the residents are finally up for their merits hearing, the judge will call them by a nine-digit number, not by their name, and will scrutinize them from a three-foot-wide television screen. Most immigrants will not have a lawyer. Most will be turned away and returned to their home countries: one of the judges at STDC denies 85 percent of requests for immigration relief. The other, nearly 70 percent.

STDC is a jail. It is white concrete walls edged by razor-wire fences. For spring break, I traveled with seven other students from Boston to Pearsall, Texas to assist the pro se respondents inside. On the first day, we met the team of American Gateways, a nonprofit legal service provider, at 7:00am, and drove the 40 miles south of San Antonio to get to the detention center, the bread and butter of the desolate town of Pearsall and a source of income for Geo Group, the private company who runs it.

My task was to help three women complete their I-589 applications—a form that is used to apply for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture—and provide translation assistance for declarations that support their claims. To provide a contrast, as a student attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), I represented one client during a school semester, with the help of a supervisor and another student attorney. At Pearsall, I spent a week providing legal services to three respondents.

One woman I met wrote a declaration that was a homage to her father. *Luisa outlines in clear detail her childhood and later teenage years, spending time with her father who campaigned for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. It details the campaign events she attended with her father, and the events leading up to his speaking out against the government. Luisa’s father later dies at the hands of the government. Fearing for her own life, Luisa flees to Mexico. There, she becomes victim to domestic violence and ends up on the streets. As a migrant, she receives little to no state protection and has no choice but to turn herself in at the U.S. border.

Another woman, *Nory, is barely old enough to be inside an adult detention center. As a Garifuna young woman in Honduras, she has faced discrimination all her life. But, she tells me, she fled Honduras because the 18th Street gang was after her and her younger brother. I have to ask her why she thinks the gangs targeted her so that she can establish “nexus”—the legal term used to connect the persecution suffered or feared to any of the five grounds contained in the refugee definition. She cries. Her first hearing is next week. We try to fit her experiences into neat boxes that constitute the five protected grounds for asylum: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

Back in Cambridge, the stories of the brave individuals inside the Pearsall detention center stay with me. The right to asylum has been a part of U.S. law for nearly 40 years, and yet STDC is evidence that our legal commitments are not meted out, especially for immigrants who cross our southern border. Moreover, last year, a decision issued by the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it even more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain relief based on domestic violence or persecution by gangs, causing confusion amongst immigration judges throughout the country and enabling conservative judges, like those in Pearsall, to take a much harder line against asylum seekers.

The result is not only a failure to comply with domestic and international law, but also the U.S. government’s complicity in creating policies that disparately impact Latinx immigrants. We should be ashamed of this period in history. Luisa and Nory should be given a chance. They are instead criminalized for seeking a life free from violence.

*Names anonymized to protect the identity of the individuals.

To Seek Refuge in Texas

By: Madeline Kane J.D. ‘21

Madeline Kane is the third from left in all black

It’s 4:50am, and I’m up before my alarm sounds. The time change may be to blame—Texas is one hour behind Cambridge—but more likely, I’m awake because I’m thinking about the detained immigrants and asylum-seekers I’ve met this week. Together with a small group of HLS students, I am spending spring break at a border detention center.

We are here to support American Gateways, one of the largest legal nonprofits working in the immigration detention centers of Texas.

We are here because we believe in the rule of law. Congress has granted refugees and many classes of immigrants the right to stay in America. But certain detention centers seem beyond the reach of these laws: while some immigration judges deny fewer than 10% of asylum claims, others deny over 90%.

We are here because only one in seven detained immigrants has access to counsel. Immigrants have no right to a court-appointed lawyer—so those who can’t afford one have to face ICE attorneys alone. This week we will help prepare immigrants and asylum-seekers to defend themselves pro se.

We are here because the merits, not money, should control this process. Yet poverty dictates outcomes: asylum-seekers with no lawyer are five times less likely to be granted refuge, according to a 2016 study by Syracuse University. Those odds are sobering, considering that a person who is denied asylum stands to lose her freedom—or even her life.

***

It’s 8:30am, and I park our rental car outside the South Texas Detention Complex (STDC) after an hour’s drive toward the border. STDC is managed by a private corporation and houses nearly 2000 men and women from around the world.

We proceed through double interlocking doors to find dozens of immigrants in prison uniforms, sitting quietly on benches, waiting to ask us about their cases. They could be mistaken for patient passengers at a train station. But this place is a way station for people with nowhere to go.

The guards bring in Gloria*, a woman from central Africa who has escaped horrific violence. We speak in French—mine rusty, hers breaking into sobs as she explains she was separated from her kids along the journey. We work together to prepare for her final hearing before an immigration judge in two days. Gloria is terrified because she made a mistake on one of the forms she must present. If the ICE trial attorney uses the mistake to discredit her, it is likely she will be deported.

I switch to Spanish and meet with Fernando*, a father who has been working the fields in the United States for more than two decades. He may be eligible to stay, but only if his deportation would create “extreme hardship” for his two young children, both US citizens. Fernando is terribly shy, and I worry he will be too intimidated to make his case. I help him fill out an official form. “How tall are you?” He shakes his head. “Approx. 5 feet,” I write. “Weekly earnings?” $350 per week. “Assets in the United States?” He shakes his head, laughing softly. Zero dollars, he has zero dollars.

Another woman tells me she received death threats when she fought for poor farmers’ land rights. But her asylum claim was denied for insufficient detail. “I thought if I spoke the names of the bad men in court, they would find out and torture my family,” she says. “They killed my nephew.” She hands me a final deportation order and asks what it means. Tears stream down her face as I translate. Apparently, no one has explained to her that the court ordered her to be sent back. We will do everything we can to get her another hearing, I promise.

***

We will meet countless people whose strong claims may be doomed simply because they didn’t get legal help in time. A few have been imprisoned here for years. They have done nothing wrong but to seek refuge in Texas.

The injustice is striking, but the situation is not hopeless. Early legal orientation from nonprofits like American Gateways can help detained immigrants forced to confront our broken system pro se. What’s more, lawyers who take on pro bono cases can make a tremendous difference: in fact, our American Gateways supervising attorney will win relief for a Haitian man before our trip is over.

As for our HLS group: our work is just beginning. We will be headed back to Cambridge too soon, but we plan to follow up on our cases and continue this work in our legal careers. This week we’ve entered a dark corner of our justice system that few Americans have the opportunity to witness. Now our job is to keep shining a light into it.

 

*Names changed for clients’ confidentiality 

 

Restoring El Caño From Within

By: Alexis Farmer

A square block of tires serves as a fortress, protecting the browned soil. It is the only space in the immediate area that isn’t completely littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, napkins, and other garbage. The trash is a distraction from the colorful murals in the underpass and greenery. Melba, owner of the ecotourism company Excursiones ECO and 4th generation community member, tells us the youth of El Caño Martín Peña created the barrier and the mural to promote beautification in their community. They know they must do what they can to help themselves.

An underpass in El Cano Martin Pena. A mural of colorful birds and water adorns the wall. Tires border a large square of dirt, slightly littered with trash.

Standing under the underpass in El Caño Martín Peña. Credit: Alexis Farmer

10 Harvard Law School students traveled to Puerto Rico as a part of Harvard Law School’s Pro Bono Spring Break. 2019 was the second year Harvard Law School has partnered with organizations in Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts and other legal services needs in the community. As the Communications Coordinator for the office that organizes the trip, I joined the students mid-way through the break to document their experience and to highlight the community-initiatives active in Puerto Rico.

On Puerto Rico’s Emancipation Day, the students and I learned about the communities along El Caño. Half of the group spent the week working at an organization that provides social programming and legal advocacy for these communities. It was important to learn about the communities they were serving for the week and to see how communities were still crippled from the devastating hurricane.

A pile of trash - boards, papers, and other miscellaneous items sit next to a bush.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

The eight communities along El Caño Martín Peña, a 3.75-mile long tidal channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico are among the most impoverished communities in San Juan. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2017, the average median income in Puerto Rico was roughly $19,800. A site historically polluted and neglected, the communities are facing critical public health and environmental challenges as a result of Hurricane María. El Caño was already in critical condition prior to the hurricane, but once the storm hit in September 2017, the need for environmental sustainability became even more urgent.

A turtle and fish swim in clouded water.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Many of the pastel colored homes are without roofs. The lush greenery surrounding us feels refreshing, but Melba tells us murky water nourishes the roots. Power lines bend towards the street, weathered and weary from Mother Nature’s wrath. The channel is clogged with debris and sediment. In a written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Lyvia Rodriguez, executive director of ENLACE said that the lack of a sewer system and storm water system has led to pollution in homes and flooding. If it rains hard enough, El Caño floods tread back into the community, exposing residents to polluted waters.

Electric poles bend in towards the street.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Approximately 130,000 people, nearly 4 percent of the population, left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland after the hurricane, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But for many with low-incomes, moving is not a possibility. “It’s not sensible,” said Estrella, the Environmental Affairs Manager of ENLACE. “It would cause mass displacement, [particularly] for low-income communities.” The Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña is organizing an ecosystem restoration project, which includes dredging the water. Estrella, a tall young woman, is passionate about making a change. She’s been supervising five HLS students over the week as they conduct legal research on whether ENLACE can access federal community block development grants to help rebuild homes and help residents access formal banking. She fervently remarks on how gentrification damages communities and that ENLACE’s goal is to improve the conditions of where people already are. Estrella asserts that the organization is committed to help residents avoid eviction and ensuring the community reaps the benefits of new investments.

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella (middle).

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella (middle). Credit: Alexis Farmer

To further complicate matters, many residents of El Caño cannot access FEMA assistance because they cannot prove they own their homes through titles of deeds. Last May, FEMA only approved 40% of applicants for disaster assistance to fix their homes. Michelle Sugden-Castillo, a housing nonprofit consultant in Puerto Rico, told NBC News that some homes were passed down through generations and didn’t get properly registered. According to the agency’s guidelines, those who cannot prove ownership can still meet FEMA requirements by providing alternate verification of home ownership, including mortgage payments, property tax bills or receipts, a bill of payment record, or some proof of occupancy (a credit card statement, utility bills, driver’s license, etc).

A large grass field. Three homes are pictured missing some sort of its structure: windows, a roof, etc.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Community members are intent on staying. Ana is a community legend. A small, silvered hair woman, began a community garden in her neighborhood, but not without a fight. She used to see people dumping trash in the empty lot across from her house, until she began to chase them off. Other community members noticed her efforts and joined her – organizing a plan to begin a garden. The garden now covers nearly two New York City blocks. Students come to help tend to the garden. It is now a source of food and fellowship.

A community garden

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Outside of her tangerine flat, Ana shares limbers, a tropical twist on Italian ice, with her neighbors and those who pass by. The sweet treat is a nice relief in the sweltering heat and blissfully sunny day. Melba, a young activist herself, shares Ana’s story. Melba has been active in the community fighting for ecological and environmental justice since she was 17. She started off with the Sierra Club, but has since joined ENLACE and started her own ecotourism company. Melba is small, but mighty. She is committed to staying in her community and helping it improve. “We understand the value of the water way and we want to restore its value.”

10 HLS students traveled to Puerto Rico. Here, the group sits on Ana's porch. Ana pictured in the top right. Melba is the first on the right-hand side in the bottom row.

10 HLS students traveled to Puerto Rico. Here, the group sits on Ana’s porch. Ana pictured in the top, second to the far right. Melba is the first on the right-hand side in the bottom row. Credit: Alexis Farmer

Life along El Caño still exists. Turtles and fish swim in the water. Plantains and vegetables are among the shrubbery between homes. People sit outside on their porches, watching kids ride bikes and others walking the smooth pavement. The work to rebuild is already set in motion. It is clear that El Caño is a recreational, economic, and environmental asset of Puerto Rico. It is not only for the people, but will be reshaped and developed by the people.

The channel

Credit: Alexis Farmer

 

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Natalie Trigo Reyes ’19 wants to help vulnerable communities—starting at home in Puerto Rico

Via Harvard Law Today

Credit: Mark Ostow
Natalie Trigo Reyes ’19

After Hurricane Maria roared over Puerto Rico in September 2017, crippling the island where Natalie Trigo Reyes ’19 grew up and where much of her family still lived, she felt “completely overwhelmed.” Within days, however, she put together an event that raised about $40,000 for relief efforts, collected enough emergency goods to fill three large trucks, and joined Harvard Law Professor Andrew Manuel Crespo ’08 and Lee Mestre of the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs to plan the school’s response to the disaster.

Using her contacts (Trigo Reyes co-founded a non-profit in San Juan in 2012 to support public-private partnerships), she helped to organize a mission to Puerto Rico over the law school’s spring break to provide legal and humanitarian aid. “Natalie was our connection to this world of different NGOs, community leaders and charitable organizations,” says Crespo. “Any time we hit some sort of issue, bump, or question, Natalie said, ‘I’m on this.’”

Months after Maria hit, tens of thousands of Puerto Rican residents are still living without adequate shelter. About a dozen of the 29 Harvard Law students on the trip helped to repair houses damaged by the storm.  The others, including Trigo Reyes, worked with local lawyers in the Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster Recovery Centers located around the island, helping residents file appeals to try to claim disaster relief they had been denied. About 60 percent of the claims filed with FEMA by Puerto Rico’s residents for money to rebuild homes have been rejected for insufficient documentation, according to reports.  Many houses have been passed informally from generation to generation, so much of the work focused on establishing a chain of ownership through affidavits, old land registry forms, or death certificates. This was complicated by the fact that Puerto Rico, which was a Spanish colony until 1898, has a legal code different from the rest of the U.S., based partly on the Spanish civil system. Trigo Reyes and the other students tried to get through as many FEMA appeals as they could—she remembers one morning when she filed 11—yet at the same time they wanted to take time for people who were traumatized by the storm and its aftermath, and needed to tell their stories. “Having the opportunity to go to these remote locations and help people claim [what is] rightfully theirs was really emotional for me,” says Trigo Reyes. “These are U.S. citizens, and they are entitled to these FEMA benefits.”

The work she did in Puerto Rico grew naturally out of her personal values and professional experience. She came to HLS with a degree in economics and six years of work in federal government, including in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Chambers of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (as special assistant to the justice, she accompanied her on two trips to Puerto Rico). The HLS trip this spring also tied in with Trigo Reyes’ quest to seek out creative ways to use the law on behalf of vulnerable communities.

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Spring Break with Project Citizenship

By Andrew Patterson, J.D. ’20

Over Spring Break, I had the opportunity to work with Project Citizenship, a Boston-based organization that exists to help Legal Permanent Residents become United States citizens.  I had an amazing experience that enabled me to jump right into working with clients, including providing direct representation at a USCIS citizenship interview.

The naturalization process is complex and expensive.  The forms can be daunting, filled with confusing language and oddly intrusive questions.  The application process can cost up to $725 in fees, posing a high financial hurdle.  Because of these obstacles, many Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) avoid the naturalization process and forego the benefits of citizenship – among them the right to vote and, increasingly important, security from deportation.

Project Citizenship exists to assist LPR’s overcome these difficulties by helping them determine eligibility, prepare the forms, and obtain fee waivers.  Much of my work with them consisted of screening applicants for citizenship eligibility, often in Spanish, and then setting them up with an appointment to attend one of the Project’s workshops.  During my week there I also got to work with clients at a day-long workshop, assisting them with citizenship applications and fee waivers alongside dozens of pro-bono attorneys.  That day we submitted close to 80 citizenship applications, and with Project Citizenship’s 95% approval rate, the great majority of those applicants will soon be U.S. citizens.

Project Citizenship also does important work advocating for LPR clients who have a disability.  Prospective citizens usually have to show proficiency in English and U.S. civics and take the oath of citizenship, but certain applicants can be exempted from those requirements, namely those whose disability prevents them from learning English and Civics or from understanding the oath.  Applicants seeking a disability waiver must provide a written determination from a medical doctor explaining why they cannot prepare for these tests or understand the oath.  Even with this completed form, applicants for these waivers can be met with stiff resistance from the USCIS officers adjudicating their applications.  Project Citizenship and their pro-bono attorneys have encountered USCIS officers who are hostile to these applicants and who look for any pretext – such as minor mistakes in the paperwork – to reject these waiver requests.  Occasionally they also violate their own regulations by substituting their judgment for a doctor’s and by inquiring into other facets of the applicant’s life that have no bearing on the specific issue of ability to learn English and Civics.  Project Citizenship and its pro bono lawyers play an important role in these situations by challenging illegitimate grounds for rejection and ensuring that USCIS follows its own regulations.

Project Citizenship’s attorney Mitchell Montgomery, who serves through the AmeriCorps Legal Advocates of Massachusetts program, provided training and mentorship that enabled me to represent one of these clients.  I attended a citizenship interview with an applicant who had a cognitive disability, along with one of her family members who would answer questions and take the oath on her behalf.  The interview went smoothly and my client became a citizen that day.  My most valuable assistance ended up being simply describing the process to my client’s daughter and advising her on which parts of the application would elicit questions from the interviewing officer, and then helping her answer questions.  A big part of my role was decoding the process for the client to make it less intimidating.

Overall, the week provided great experience in improving interviewing skills and exposed me to direct representation in an administrative advocacy scenario.  Project Citizenship provided outstanding training and struck the right balance between stretching one beyond the comfort zone and ensuring adequate preparation.  I highly recommend that any HLS student interested in immigration and naturalization issues spend time working with Project Citizenship.

Law students help to mend Puerto Rico

Via Harvard Gazette

29 travel to hurricane-damaged island to provide legal services, rebuild homes

The Law School brigade outside San Juan. Courtesy of Thinlay Chukki

A few weeks after Hurricane Maria swept Puerto Rico last September, Harvard Law School (HLS) student Natalie Trigo Reyes ’19 visited the island where she grew up, and found an unrecognizable landscape.

“Everything was brown, barren, leveled to the ground,” said Trigo Reyes on a recent morning in Wasserstein Hall. “It looked as if the island had been hit by a nuclear bomb.”

Six months later, Puerto Rico is still reeling from the devastation, but to Trigo Reyes, who just came back from a weeklong trip as part of a humanitarian and legal brigade, the outlook is hopeful.

“Now, there is vegetation, and you can see the green,” she said, “and even though the government response has been slow and insufficient, there is a sense of hope.”

Trigo Reyes led a group of 29 HLS students who traveled to Puerto Rico over spring break to lend a hand to local residents who are still struggling to obtain disaster relief aid. Puerto Rico is a U.S. self-governing territory and its inhabitants are American citizens, although they can’t vote in presidential elections or elect representatives to Congress.

The HLS trip was spearheaded by Andrew Crespo ’08, assistant professor of law, and coordinated by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, led by Lee Mestre. The students joined forces with local groups such as Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la JusticiaAyuda Legal Huracán MaríaCaras con Causa, and ConnectRelief, all of which are working to protect the rights of Puerto Rico residents to federal assistance, employment, and housing protection.

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Spring break in Puerto Rico? After María, that means ‘rebuild,’ not ‘relax’

Via The Christian Science Monitor

Six months after the Category 4 hurricane hit, recovery remains slow. From Boy Scouts to Harvard Law, many students from the US mainland are spending vacation time volunteering here: helping to clear debris, navigate FEMA forms, and restore damaged forests.

Harvard law student Kevin Ratana Patumwat helps hurricane victims sort legal documents at a FEMA help center on March 14, 2018 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Six months after hurricane Maria hit, students spent their spring break helping victims navigate the FEMA system.

 

Mallory Gibson, a music-business major at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), has spent her junior-year spring break surrounded by sand, surf, and palm trees. But her experience has been pretty far from typical.

“This is exactly what I wanted to do,” says Ms. Gibson, who moments earlier put down a nearly two-foot-long machete that she was using to whack apart a fallen palm tree. She’s covered in a thin film of dirt and, like everyone else here, drips sweat under the midday sun. Just a few hundred yards away the Caribbean laps the sandy shore of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve, but she won’t dip her toes in the water until her seven-hour work day wraps.

“We’re tackling a small drop in the large ocean of things that need to be done” to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet, she says.

Gibson is the co-leader of a 22-person team from her university that traveled to Puerto Rico to volunteer six months after hurricane María, cleaning up debris and helping regenerate parts of the forest destroyed by the Category 4 storm.

These college students aren’t alone in eschewing traditional spring break activities like sunbathing and partying to help Puerto Rico recover. From the more than 100 Boy Scouts from across the mainland US helping to rebuild a scout camp in Guajataka to 31 Harvard law students providing pro-bono legal aid and humanitarian work, spring break in Puerto Rico this year is a far cry from lazing on the beach.

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Examining lead contamination in the Mississippi Delta

By Thomas Wolfe, J.D. ’19

Credit: Thomas Wolfe JD ’19

This spring, I went with the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) to Clarksdale, Mississippi to work on the issue of lead contamination of municipal water supplies in the Mississippi Delta. I had an excellent trip, and I would recommend the MDP Spring Break trip to anyone interested in making a difference in a fascinating, but overlooked, part of the country.

Since the Flint Water Crisis, the presence of lead in drinking water has become a serious concern for local governments across the country. Old water systems often contain pipes with lead parts, and acidic water or chlorine used to treat other contaminants can corrode the pipes, which causes the lead to leach into the water supply. This can be especially problematic in rural areas, where a lack of funds or awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning can prevent residents and local governments from taking proactive steps to protect against lead contamination. Because of the increased focus on the threat of lead contamination in drinking water and the intense poverty of the Mississippi Delta, our task with MDP was to help our clients, researchers at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, to determine just how significant of a problem lead contamination was for rural municipal water systems in the Delta.

For us this required first educating ourselves about the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and state laws and regulations implementing the Act. This was a fascinating dive into an important and complex statute, and it was made especially interesting because it required learning about how municipal water systems worked.

We then had to apply this information to the context of very small public water systems serving rural areas. This involved the best part of the trip: interviewing local stakeholders to find out which laws were effective, which weren’t, and generally to learn how they ran water systems. I really enjoyed the opportunity to interview people involved in the daily operation of local governments – from water operators, to small town mayors, to state public health department officials, to doctors in the neonatal care unit in Jackson, MS dealing with the effects of public health mismanagement. People were happy to talk to us about the issues facing their communities, and they really looked positively on our work and appreciated the fact that people were thinking and caring about the Delta. For my part, it was really nice to develop my skills as an interviewer, which I think is a key part of being a lawyer. The empathy you develop in speaking with people face to face is often missed in the law school classroom.

We eventually turned this information into memoranda and presentations for our clients, who will take the information and policy recommendations we developed and use it to continue to improve public health in the Delta. I’m proud that the work I produced over the course of the week will help to address the extremely important issue of lead contamination, which causes irreversible developmental issues in children and often affects the most disadvantaged members of society.

And I couldn’t help but mention that on top of the excellent professional and service opportunities that the trip provided, the Delta is one of the cultural wellsprings of America with great music, great food, and lovely people, and it’s a place I’d love to return to on my own. I’m glad I was able to play a small part in helping the people in the region get through hard times.

HLS students travel to Mexico to provide free tax services for migrant workers

Written by the team of students who traveled to Mexico

HLS students on their Spring Break Pro Bono Trip to Mexico

HLS students on their Spring Break Pro Bono Trip to Mexico

Our enthusiastic team of eight HLS students and one supervising attorney ventured into the state of Queretaro, Mexico to provide free tax services for migrant workers in coordination with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM). One week, many tacos, and $6,799 in refunds later, we are headed back to Boston with new perspectives on the challenges that migrant workers face in the US.

About 1,200 workers settled a class action against an employer in the US following poor working conditions and missing back pay. Some workers had federal taxes withheld from the settlement amount, which we were able to reclaim. We also helped migrant workers claim back year taxes for 2014, 2015, and 2016. For other migrant workers who did not have federal taxes withheld from the settlement amount, we helped them fill W-7 forms for individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN) in order to claim their dependents and file tax returns in the future.

While preparing tax returns, many migrant workers recalled cramped bunk houses, illegal and non-reimbursed recruiting fees, withheld W-2 forms from their employers, and paid tax preparation fees by the employer, often claiming fraudulent tax credits. On each of these issues, we tried our best to inform them of their rights remedies should they encounter these problems again.

None of this success would have been possible without the fantastic people at CDM. The CDM team organized workshops for community members in tandem with our tax clinics to discuss the resources available to prevent labor abuses, to navigate the immigration system, and to understand the American political climate. CDM’s history, expertise, and passion for advocacy on behalf of migrant workers have earned them the trust and respect of local communities. We learned so much from them and would urge other law students to work with them in the future. CDM is on the front lines of migrant worker labor rights, which have become more critical since the recent election. The anxiety among the population was palpable, especially in terms of their visa status and heightened racism. For many migrant workers, their US wages earned within a few months each year is their only income.

Outside of our work, we found time to soak up the culture and explore all that Mexico has to offer. We hiked La Pena, the world’s third largest monolith, which watches over the officially designated Pueblo Magico and is rumored to have mystical energy. Many of our group can now attest to its power. We sampled many delicious local dishes and indulged moderately in local liquors such as mescal and aguardiente. We even had a piñata to celebrate the birthday of Joanna Cornell (JD/MBA ’19)!

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn about direct client services while providing tangible assistance to an underserved community. We were able to save the migrant workers $6,799 through tax returns and $1,000 through saved tax preparation fees. We learned so much about the lives and challenges of migrant workers and had an unforgettable experience along the way.

 

Spring Break Pro Bono Trips: Students Work on Human Rights Litigation in Uganda

By Brian Klosterboer  J.D. ’16

Five students traveled to Uganda over spring break to work on pending litigation that could advance human rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandans. LGBTI rights have been a contentious issue in Uganda since 2007, when LGBTI Ugandans started advocating publicly for their rights. This sparked backlash from pastors and politicians with close ties to the United States, and in 2009 a Member of Parliament proposed the death penalty for “serial offenders” of homosexuality. The death penalty was later reduced to life imprisonment, and a number of court battles over LGBTI rights ensued.

The students from Harvard worked under the supervision of lawyers at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a nongovernmental organization in Kampala that provides direct services, conducts research and advocacy, and coordinates strategic litigation. During the week-long trip, the team conducted legal research, met with lawyers and activists, and wrote an internal memo. Organized by Lambda at Harvard Law and Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights, the trip included Andres Caicedo ‘16, Brandon Storm ‘18, Brian Klosterboer ‘16, Charlie Fletcher ‘18, and Mitha Nandagopalan ’18.

With the guidance of HRAPF attorneys, the team researched Ugandan and international law while exploring human rights strategies for advancing the rule of law. Since 2008, HRAPF has been a leader in promoting human rights for marginalized groups, including LGBTI individuals, sex workers, and women and children living with HIV.

In August 2014, HRAPF was lead counsel in a case that overturned Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act in the Constitutional Court. Brian Klosterboer ’16 was part of that team as he interned at HRAPF during his 1L summer. Adrian Jjuuko, HRAPF’s Executive Director, has also visited Harvard Law School twice as a speaker in the last three years.

HRAPF and Harvard strengthened these connections last week as students spent five days working with HRAPF attorneys and paralegals. The students also met with LGBTI clients and visited journalists and activists from the Kuchu Times Media Group (KTMG).

KTMG is an LGBTI-led media group that provides a platform for LGBTI Africans to share their stories in their own voices. It was founded in December 2014 by Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, who had previously been a plaintiff in a lawsuit against a Ugandan tabloid. That tabloid published the names, pictures, and addresses of dozens of LGBTI Ugandans and called for them to be killed. HRAPF represented Nabagesera in the case and set an important precedent that LGBTI individuals have the same right to privacy as everyone else.

Despite this ruling, Nabagesera and others continued to be outed and attacked in Ugandan tabloids. They therefore decided to create a magazine and news website to reclaim the media and tell their own narratives. Last Wednesday, students met with the staff of KTMG and saw a sneak peak of the second issue of Bombastic magazine, which is set to be released next week.

While in Uganda, the team also saw a cultural dance show, went white water rafting on the Nile River, and took a boat cruise on Lake Victoria. The team was welcomed by three LLMs–Godiva Akullo ‘15, Susan Mirembe ‘15, and David Lewis ‘15–who graduated from Harvard last year and are now lecturers of law at two leading universities in Kampala.

The memo that the team produced is confidential, but students hope that their research and analysis will contribute to HRAPF’s mission of advancing human rights for all Ugandans.

The trip was sponsored by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, and Anna Crowe, a fellow in the International Human Rights Clinic, joined students on the trip.

Spring Break Pro Bono Trips: Dispatch from the Greater Boston Legal Services

By Lydia Mwalimu Adude, LL.M. ’16 

They say that the market is flooded with lawyers, but this does not really mean that the field of public interest is flooded. Public interest law is still in dire need of lawyers. Accordingly, my main driving force in taking part in the spring pro bono projects was because it presented an opportunity for me to give back to society with my already acquired legal skills, and equally to get more acquainted with the U.S. legal system.

I worked with the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and the Legal Advocacy & Resource Center (LARC). I worked with LARC screening clients for intake in a number of areas, including bankruptcy law. I also worked on a lawyer for the day project by conducting online research and telephone inquiries on the lawyer for the day programs and other pro se resources in probate and family courts in Massachusetts. I assisted GBLS Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Sealing Unit during its legal representation of clients at the Roxbury Trial Court, and visited Massachusetts State House to help create awareness on a Senate Bill, SB 2176, passed by the Massachusetts Senate on March 10, 2016 to increase the felony larceny threshold from the current $250 to $1500. My presence at GBLS also presented an opportunity to attend the Boston City Housing public hearing at the Boston City Hall on the proposed Just Cause Eviction (JCE) ordinance. JCE seeks to incorporate safeguards for renters facing eviction and small home owners facing foreclosure of their homes in the Boston housing economy.

I was hesitant at first because of my foreign legal education but I am glad that I was able to fit in nicely so fast through the guidance of my supervisors. What surprised me most was the diverse pool of persons seeking legal aid in order to access justice, and the fact that the limitations on the legal services field meant that most persons had to be turned away even though the organization did try its best to make external referrals. I believe the spring break pro bono project exposed me to the intricacies of the legal services sector in the U.S., and the diverse nature of the U.S. populace. All in all it gives me great pleasure to know that my pro bono legal service made justice accessible to someone in need of legal aid.

Spring Break Pro Bono Trips: Dispatch from ProBar in Texas

By Edith Sangueza, J.D. ’18

Seen from the outside, the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) is a cheerful coral color, with an asymmetrical glass front. Palm trees and bougainvillea flowers line the well-kept grounds. A short distance away, spring breakers enjoy the beaches and beers on South Padre Island.

ProBAR

On the inside, though, the detention center is chilly, sterile, and unmistakably prison-like. To the more than one thousand people detained inside, it might as well be prison. Detainees, often fleeing extreme violence in their home countries in Central America, eastern Africa, and South Asia, have no right to counsel in navigating the U.S.’s byzantine immigration laws. ProBAR, a legal aid organization based in nearby Harlingen, steps in to fill the gaps, helping detainees prepare for their cases. Because of strictures from its funding model, ProBAR chiefly provides legal education and helps people prepare their applications so they are better prepared to represent themselves pro se.

We arrived at ProBAR on Monday and received a brief orientation from Edgar Gaucín, the office manager, whose own life has spanned the border from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, TX. Once oriented, we headed out to PIDC where we split up and were able to interview several people seeking asylum. We helped them prepare English-language versions of their I-589 forms, the form potential asylees must prepare in order to apply for either asylum or for withholding of removal. We talked to people with a wide range of ages, experiences, and motivations for leaving their home countries, including some whose past criminal records could be serious obstacles to their asylum applications.

For me, the experience was incredibly valuable as a way to see what the asylum process is like in practice, especially within the expedited removal context. It was also re-centering and motivating as a way to put my legal education into practice.

Clinic students document lessons learned outside the classroom

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Via HLS News

This March, several teams of HLS students used their Spring Break to work on a number of humanitarian projects, including documenting property rights issues in the Mississippi Delta, working with asylum seekers in detention centers at the Texas border, and helping undocumented immigrants in Chicago with their applications for permission to stay in the U.S. With photos and blog posts, students documented the lessons they learned about the law outside the classroom. Read more below.

Alternative spring break trips for students are developed and sponsored by theOffice of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs. This is the 11th year that the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs has funded; The trips originated in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when students went to New Orleans to assist displaced families.

Colin Ross ’16: documenting the heirs property system in Mississippi

There had been a murder in the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi—the third in a month; A high number for a town of just over 17,000 in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The crowd had gathered in the street to hold a nighttime candlelight vigil to remember and honor the victim. Towards the back of the crowd, the police chief and other plainclothes police officers silently observed the scene. The vigil ended with the release of balloons and with prayer. Maybe locals more steeped in past tragedies, and who may have seen such vigils come and go without result in the past, would have said differently, but to this Harvard outsider at least, there was an energy on that dark street. Continue reading


Isabel Broer ’16: community lawyering with CALA in Chicago

We were in Chicago to support the work of the Community Activism Law Alliance(CALA). Founded in late 2014 by HLS alumnus Lam Ho’08 with a seed grant from Public Service Venture Fund, CALA endeavors to bring free legal services to some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities. CALA practices “community activism lawyering,” which prioritizes meaningful collaboration with and grassroots activism in the communities it serves. Continue reading


Mojca Nadles LL.M. ’15: asylum representation in Texas

After a brief orientation, we headed to the Port IsabelDetention Center and got started interviewing clients right away. Our clients were all young men from Somalia who had survived against incredible odds and made the extremely long journey from Somalia to Texas. As volunteers, we conducted extensive interviews to collect all the information we would need to fill out the clients’ asylum applications in a way that would make it clear to the immigration judge that they had a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to Somalia. Continue reading

Spring break road trips lead to the clinic, the delta, and the desert

Via HLS News

Developed and sponsored by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, several teams of HLS students traveled across the US to work with humanitarians along the Arizona border, Bostonians trying to seal their criminal records, immigrants in Texas and children in the Mississippi Delta.

This is the 10th year that the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs has funded alternative spring break trips for students. These trips originated in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when students went to New Orleans to assist displaced families. “These trips have provided students with unique experiences. Students often come back from these trips and remark on how eye-opening and transformative their trip was,” said Lisa Dealy, Assistant Dean for Clinical and Pro Bono Programs.

Continue reading the full story on HLS News.