Asylum Law Project, University of Minnesota Law School

Asylum Law Project Wins Student Group Award

University of Minnesota Law School website

APRIL 21, 2009—The Law School’s Asylum Law Project (ALP) received a University of Minnesota Tony Diggs Excellence Award for Outstanding Graduate or Professional Student Group of 2008 at an awards ceremony on April 16, 2009.

ALP leaders Jordan Shepherd (’11) and Brianna Mooty (’10) accepted the plaque, given by Students Unions & Activities, on behalf of the group, its student board, and its volunteer members. “Brianna and I are excited to receive this award on behalf of ALP,” Shepherd said, “and we are very grateful for the support that we have received from all of you in the Law School.”

The award recognizes demonstrated significant success and development in following the mission and goals of the group. Professor David Weissbrodt and Amber Fox of Student Services nominated ALP for the honor.

Through ALP, 1L students volunteer to work over their winter and spring breaks with nonprofit organizations to represent immigrants and asylum-seekers on legal issues at U.S. points of entry. These volunteer projects allow 1Ls to experience the field of immigration law while also filling a critical need for legal assistance among people seeking asylum and the organizations aiding them.

During 2008-09, almost 100 students (nearly 40% of 1Ls) volunteered at projects in Minneapolis, Miami, Las Vegas, Nashville, El Paso, and Florence, Ariz.

In El Paso, for example, 70 ALP volunteers contributed approximately 2,800 hours during their winter break conducting client interviews, carrying out legal research, and compiling case briefs for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Texas Rural Legal Aid, and other organizations.

ALP is led by 1Ls and is one of few organizations that allow 1Ls to participate in actual legal work, which is usually available only to 2Ls and 3Ls.


Beyond the legalese

U students aid asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants through the legal process

Three Asylum Law Project members looking at a laptop
First-year University of Minnesota law students Kalli Bennett, Jordan Shepherd, and Christopher Luehr.

Photo: Patrick O’Leary

By Pauline Oo

They meet Mexican families who have been in the United States for years and are now facing exile, Asian and African nationals who have fled persecution from government or rebel groups in their homeland and are now living in limbo, teenagers from Nicaragua who have hiked miles and are now looking at deportation….

Each spring and winter break, members of the University of Minnesota Asylum Law Project (ALP) volunteer across the United States at nonprofit organizations that work with immigrants and people seeking asylum. In addition to helping the attorneys on staff with research and case briefs, the students—all in their first-year at the University of Minnesota Law School—visit immigration detention centers, conduct client interviews, interpret if they have foreign language skills, and attend immigration and juvenile court.

“Most of the time a first-year law student does no practical, legal work,” says Jordan Shepherd, ALP president. “Every professor will tell you to just study, study, study; to learn the stuff, because all the basics of that first year you’ll use for everything else you do. So, the main draw of ALP for law students is the practical experience their first year.”

Law School graduate Emily Good, who now works for the local nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights, trains ALP’s members on the basics of asylum law prior to each trip. “So when we go in to help these organizations, we have a little bit of background on what it means to do legal research and legal writing,” says Shepherd.

The Asylum Law Project started in 1992 with a small group of University of Minnesota law students traveling to Miami to assist Haitian refugees maneuver the legal process. Over time, the project has grown by leaps and bounds. Membership hovers around 100 this year, and the students can choose to help immigrant advocacy or legal aid offices in one of six cities—El Paso (for three weeks); Miami (three weeks), Minneapolis (two weeks); Las Vegas (two weeks); Florence, Arizona (one week); and Nashville, Tennessee (one week).

Miami was Lauren Henry’s choice. The aspiring lawyer flew home to Tampa for the winter holidays then drove south to volunteer at the Human Rights Institute in St. Thomas University.

Miami sounds good in the winter

The Asylum Law Project is looking for former members or Law School alums who are interested in asylum and immigration issues. The group is hosting the ALP Alumni Reception on Thursday, April 16, at 7 p.m. in Auerbach Commons at Mondale Hall.

The reception kicks off the Law School’s Alumni Weekend. For more information, call 806… or e-mail

“I had an amazing experience there learning about the removal process [of undocumented immigrants] and the different ways to seek asylum,” says Henry. “We were asked to write several briefs in addition to our court observing time. The chance to work independently and learn in order to help someone with a specific problem was the best part. In law school we are learning through past problems, but ALP gave me the chance to learn about an issue through the eyes of an actual client and work to solve a legitimate need. I was so much more motivated to find out all I could about the immigration system this way.”

The United States has nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants, or foreign-born people who entered the country without proper visas or who were admitted temporarily and stayed past the date they were required to leave. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that two-thirds of this population had been in the U.S. for 10 years or less and approximately 7 million were employed, making up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security, continues to be the leading source of unauthorized immigration (increasing from 4.7 million in 2000 to 7 million or 61 percent in January 2008), followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Honduras. California leads as the state of residence for this population (2.9 million), followed by Texas, Florida, and New York.

“The typical term you hear in the news is ‘illegal immigrants,’ but ‘undocumented’ is the terminology that most advocates try to use,” says Shepherd, who spent winter break in El Paso with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “The U.S. code does criminalize people for entering without valid documentation. But there are myriad reasons why somebody would come in to the United States. As an advocate, we have to determine whether they have a valid claim for some form of relief, whether they can be granted asylum.

“So many people get lumped in [to being called a criminal] and get shipped off without any sort of chance to say, ‘Wait, wait there’s a reason I’m coming here; if you ship me back something bad is going to happen to me,'” he adds.

“The U.S. code does criminalize people for entering without valid documentation,” says Shepherd. “But there are myriad reasons why somebody would come in to the United States. As an advocate, we have to determine whether they have a valid claim for some form of relief, whether they can be granted asylum.”

Unlike the U.S. Refugee Program, which protects refugees by bringing them to the United States for resettlement, the U.S. Asylum Program offers protection to qualified applicants who are already in the United States or are seeking entry. Asylum seekers are typically those who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Petitions, however, can take more than a year to process and immigration courts do not grant asylum easily.

In January, Shepherd worked on a case in which a Chinese man was seeking asylum. The case is still pending, with a hearing scheduled for April, and the asylum-seeker remains behind lock and key.

“The detention center [I visited] in El Paso was almost like a tent-city on the edge of town. You wouldn’t know it was a detention center if you drove pass it,” says Shepherd. “It has fences, and there are pictures inside. But it’s a detention center. You can’t come and go. Your case hasn’t been resolve, and you may not be going anywhere soon.”

Shepherd says his time with Las Americas fueled his determination to pursue a career in asylum law.

The Asylum Law Project covers about half the cost of any one member’s trip, including lodging, through grants and fundraising. (Members are allowed just one trip each year.) Students have to pay for food and transportation to their chosen city.

But no one seems to be complaining.

“All students have the chance to work with practicing attorneys and do legal research,” says Christopher Luehr, one of ALP’s five vice presidents. “Some are lucky to write briefs that are sent to judges, pending the attorney’s approval … [I joined ALP because] I am interested in assisting foreigners who have made the trip to my home country. I lived in China for a number of years and received help and support from so many people, some of them strangers. In a way, I’m trying to return the favor by helping those who are trying to navigate their way through a legal system that would be intimidating to most U.S. citizens.”


U students experience flawed immigration system

BY Alex Robinson
PUBLISHED: 01/22/2009As immigration issues continue to frequent court rooms, political speeches and circles of public debate, about 70 first-year law students helped undocumented immigrants work their way through the legal process during their winter break.

The law students, who were all members of the Asylum Law Project spent about a week scattered across the country volunteering with nonprofit legal aid organizations that specialize in assisting undocumented immigrants.

The students filed briefs, met with clients and helped lawyers fight through their heavy caseloads.

Asylum Law Project President Jordan Shepherd volunteered in border town El Paso, Texas and said it was an invaluable experience.

“I was finally able to get my hands dirty in law,” Shepherd said. “It was a lot of people’s first opportunity to get actual legal experience.”

While the students enjoyed their first taste of legal work, they also witnessed glaring problems with the current immigration system.

“There are difficult things that lie ahead for [immigrants],” Shepherd said. “Immigration courts have their hands full.”

Problems in border town

First-year law student Matthew Webster also volunteered in El Paso and said that he met with many detainees who were being held in detention for unreasonably long time periods.

Webster said he met a man from Mexico who had been held at the immigration detention center for about 14 months and the man still did not know where he was going to be sent. He also said there were children detained in El Paso; the youngest he saw was only six months old.

“Most of the rhetoric focuses on crimes or laws but too often we forget these are people,” Webster said.

There are three centers that detain children in El Paso, and combined they can hold about 160 children, said Adriana Salcedo, a lawyer who worked with the law students in El Paso. In the summer they’re completely full.

Salcedo’s organization, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, located in El Paso, turns away clients every week because case loads are too heavy.

Undocumented immigrants are not appointed an attorney because they are not U.S. citizens, Salcedo said.

If they cannot afford a lawyer and they are not lucky enough to get representation from a nonprofit organization, they are forced to explore their legal options on their own.

Salcedo said some detained undocumented immigrants simply choose deportation instead trying to work through the legal system.

“They do not know what their legal rights are and they don’t recognize they have some sort of immigration relief,” Salcedo said.

Border fence controversy

University student Webster marched 125 miles along the Texas border last March to protest the 670-mile border fence , which is currently under construction and is projected to cost about $1.6 billion.

Only days after Webster returned from his volunteer trip with the Asylum Law Project this January, the Texas Border Coalition asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case, which claims the fence violates a variety of state and local laws.

Proponents of the border fence argue that it will reduce crime and drug trafficking by undocumented immigrants, and many politicians voted in favor of it in the Senate in 2006, including President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, Chad Foster, chairman of TBC and mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas — another border town — said the fence is a waste of resources and will only slow much needed immigration reform. The fence is currently under construction in Eagle Pass.

According to Foster, border security and undocumented immigration are not a border town problem, but rather a national problem.

“If you want to clean up undocumented immigrants you have to start within the Beltway because they are serving the Department of Homeland Security coffee,” Foster said.

Increasing the amount of border patrol and implementing more new technology to guard the border would be far more effective than a border fence, Foster said.

Foster said he has good relationships with some politicians in Mexico, and working with his neighbors to the south is far more productive than trying to fence them off and lock them out.

But proponents of the fence have given Foster plenty of heat for his stance on border security.

“I’ve been called a narcotraficante ,” he said. “People ask me if I’m an American.”


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