A few weeks ago, we had a chance to stand up for one Central American family and make a real difference. We, one law professor and one law student, were the latest in a chain of connections that helped ensure that this vulnerable family will have a meaningful chance to claim asylum.

Each semester, law students at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, like other law clinics, are required to put in a certain number of hours. So when CLINIC senior staff attorney Michelle Mendez reached out about a client who needed help to prepare for her Credible Fear Interview (CFI), we agreed to assist.

The client, Maria, contacted Ms. Mendez through a Facebook group intended to bring together mothers from Central America who are seeking refuge in the U.S. and help ensure they have access to resources they need to claim asylum. We met up with Maria and heard her story:

Maria fled El Salvador with her young son when MS-13 gangs threatened to kill them if Maria’s father did not pay extortion money. Additionally, a gang-member and neighbor stalked Maria, waiting for her every day after work and threatened her, vowing she would be his girlfriend. Maria ignored his advances despite fearing retaliation for her or her family.

When the gang increased the extortion money to an amount Maria’s father could not afford, he could do no more. The gang threatened to kill Maria and her son once again and, fearing for his daughter’s and grandson’s lives, Maria’s father arranged to send them to the United States. Maria and her son were detained after crossing the border in Arizona, and subsequently released after a screening interview with Border Patrol. Only a few days after arriving in the United States, Maria learned that the MS-13 kidnapped, and presumably killed, her paternal grandfather who was on his way to visit Maria’s father. This is common; the gangs threaten to harm and kill those closest to the people they extort.

These details, drawn out over several hours of discussion helped us determine whether her experience met the standards for Credible Fear. We agreed that they certainly did and helped her understand which facts were going to be most important to convey to the asylum officer in her upcoming interview.

The date of the CFI arrived. Maria was visibly nervous despite the tremendous effort she made to put on a brave face for her young son. The wait for the asylum officer was long and exhausting, as we all arrived at 9:30 a.m. and were called in hours later. The officer who was assigned Maria’s case was a woman, which often makes it a little easier for clients to share these extremely difficult experiences. Maria recounted the same story she told us; the asylum officer frequently interrupted to gather more detail. The questions and having to recount her past was clearly painful and Maria became emotional during certain parts.

In a CFI, if an attorney is present, they are not allowed to defend or argue on their client’s behalf. There is no chance to interrupt or comfort the client during a stressful retelling of her life. Mostly, you are there for moral support, but we were given the opportunity to give a brief statement at the end of the interview.

After the interview concluded, we were instructed not to leave the building after returning from lunch, but to “await further instruction.” While we felt some concern, we also knew Maria’s case was a strong one so there was little chance that having shared her story she and her son would be detained and removed. Thankfully, after another long wait, Maria was called back and given instructions on the next steps in pursuing her asylum claim as she had received a positive credible fear determination. Maria cried and hugged her son close, telling him he was safe now, that they finally made it.

This experience, moving as it was, is not singular. All around the country there are mothers, fathers, and children who would have a far better chance to move forward with their asylum claims with a few hours of preparation with an immigration attorney and/or law student aware of how the credible fear process works. Elisa was able to earn clinic hours, and we were able to help a mother and her son take another step toward freedom and safety.

The hours we put in can mean the difference between life and death. For those of you able to help, please, consider our experience and stand up for these vulnerable families. Help them navigate the labyrinth of immigration law, a maze to which you hold a map. Help them find their way.

Written by Lindsay Harris, Member of AILA’s Asylum and Refugee Committee, and Elisa Hawkins, Second Year Law Student

How can you help?

If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Project page – we could really use your help. If you’d like to offer assistance to help someone who is not currently detained prepare for a CFI in your area, like the authors did, please leave a comment and we will be in touch.

To watch videos of volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.