By Steve Bornfeld | Photographs by Connie Palen
"We're trying to get their story out no matter how horrible it is, so something good can come out of it, if it helps them remain in this country."
They pour their heart into this work. Work that can gladden the heart. And shatter the heart.
"It's hard to ask anyone, let alone kids, to tell you about the worst thing that's ever happened to them," Laura Barrera says, "and that's basically my job."
Barrera is an attorney with the UNLV Immigration Clinic, whose pro bono mission is to train student lawyers to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings. Most of their clients are unaccompanied immigrant children—most arriving in America with trauma already burdening their young lives. The proceedings in court decide the course of their lives: You can stay. You must go.
"These cases can be very in-tense and require a delicate balance between being emotionally involved in the case and maintaining a professional distance," says Barrera, who serves as the clinic's Equal Justice Works Justice AmeriCorps Fellow.
Harassment and threats of violence from Central American street gangs is the major men-ace bearing down on the clinic's tender-age clients—largely from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, some as young as 4 years old, and up into their teens. Yet other horrors are revealed when these youngsters are gently prodded for details to help attorneys prepare their cases.
We've had some children who talk about being beaten," says Martha Arellano, who for the past three years has served as the clinic's administrative assistant and interpreter/translator, working as a conduit between attorneys and the children. "What's even harder is that they think they deserved it. ‘Well, I was beaten, but it's be-cause I did this.' That makes it even harder to listen to.
"We've had other children who have had a close relative, a grandmother or a parent who was shot and killed. It's tough to comprehend that it becomes just a part of life for anybody—but for a small child? It's difficult to get through it."
On the case since 2003—now with approximately 110 open cases on its crowded docket—the clinic's mission is more relevant than ever. That became starkly clear when the Trump administration canceled the $1.8 million in funding for the AmeriCorps initiative that provided attorneys for unaccompanied minors—minors who face lawyers from the Department of Homeland Security, as well as an often-baffling web of immigration laws.
In 2015, the clinic was one of the first seven entities—and the only law school—to receive the AmeriCorps grant, which was the seed for the clinic's new Edward M. Bernstein & Associates Children's Rights Program. The program is named in honor of the respected Las Vegas attorney who earlier this year made a $250,000 donation to ensure that the program will carry on after the AmeriCorps grant expires November 1. (On that day, Barrera will become the clinic's first Bernstein Fellow.)
"It's very hard to be nonpartisan when you work on immigration, but the fact is we are at the front lines fighting the legal struggles over the future of this country," says clinic Director Michael Kagan about the immigrant-infused demographic makeup of Clark County. Consider the statistics: 22 percent of Clark County residents are foreign-born, and a language other than English is spoken in 34 percent of homes here, as cited by the U.S. Census. And according to the Pew Research Center, 7.2 per-cent of Nevada's population was undocumented in 2014—topping Texas and California.
Hammering home the point: Census Bureau data projects that the current racial/ethnic mix of the Las Vegas Valley mirrors what the rest of America will look like by 2060. That makes Las Vegas—not New York, Chicago, or San Francisco—a model for the future of the nation.
"Las Vegas today represents what New York's Lower East Side was a hundred years ago, and that's why [the Immigration Clinic] is so important," Kagan says. "It's something we should be proud of."
Putting the clinic's purpose in perspective, Kagan compares it to a teaching hospital. "The students do more work for our clients than even well-off people would be able to pay for if they hired a private attorney," he says. "It's great for the students and the clients also, because not only do they get representation, but while students don't bring a great deal of experience, they bring fresh eyes and in-credible devotion."
That free representation is a life-line to immigrants in dire circumstances. "People who need our services, it's not a luxury," Arellano says. "They either can pay the rent or pay an attorney."
Mayra Salinas-Menjivar is one of the clinic's alumni who is more familiar than most with their clients' needs: At age 7, she arrived in Las Vegas from El Salvador with her mother. "She lived through the civil war in El Salvador, so after that she decided it was time to leave," Salinas-Menjivar says of her mother.
Salinas-Menjivar acknowledges that her own experiences dealing with the immigration system—she filed her own petition for permanent residency after she turned 18—inspired her to become a lawyer.
"I realized how much [immigrants], particularly in the Hispanic community, need reliable attorneys they can trust, and that was one of the reasons I decided to go to law school," says Salinas, a 2017 graduate of the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law who took the bar exam in July. "We need more good people to join the profession. I wanted to give back to people in similar situations, and the clinic has provided me with the opportunity to do just that."
That journey from immigrant to immigration attorney, Kagan says, is demonstrative of the clinic's positive impact on society. "She is here for her legal abilities, not because of where she came from. But the fact that someone who arrived here as a child refugee can graduate from law school is what this is all about," he says. "My own wife's grandfather came to this country as an unaccompanied minor. I want to look at all our clients not just as clients who need help today, but for what they can do and what their grandchildren will do for this community and this country."
Surviving the process, however, can be grueling, as Barrera notes when recalling a 15-year-old client who was trying to escape the recruitment efforts of the dangerous MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gang. One of the biggest gangs in Central America, MS-13 members stalked the teenage boy, even surrounding his home all night on one occasion. That particular night, when the gang members finally dispersed, the boy fled for the U.S.
He boarded a bus, crossing land borders on foot so as to avoid detection by the border patrol. Then while traveling by boat across the Rio Grande, he nearly drowned when the boat capsized. Eventually, he was picked up by the border patrol and reunited with family members in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, making it through such a daring escape is only the first step to starting life anew in America, where the quirks of immigration law often create legal road-blocks. As Barrera notes, sometimes there is little doubt that an immigrant is in danger, but the danger is not "for the right reason" — i.e., persecution based on race, religion, national-ty, or political views.
When bad news does come, though, Barrera says she is impressed with the grace of her clients and their families. She offers an example of one such client: "He got kind of quiet and looked down, but his dad thanked me for our help and just asked me to let him know what the next step was. They never get angry or blame me. Sometimes I imagine how Americans would take news like that."
Critical to the process is the work of interpreters to bridge the language gap between attorneys and clients, who are overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking children from Central America. Toward that end, a new program that started in the fall semester—one that works in tandem with UNLV's Department of World Languages and Cultures—gives students who are training as interpreters real-work experience in clinic cases. It also instructs law students how to work with interpreters to communicate with clients. "It's a positive for the child, because they feel it's someone who speaks their language and they feel more comfortable with this person than with the actual attorney who doesn't speak [their] language," says Elena Gandia Garcia, a professor in the World Languages department who heads the new program.
Easing the situation even further is Arellano's use of the clinic's playroom, which provides a non-threatening atmosphere for the youngest children to recount their story. With attorneys and other clinic staff present, Arellano will play UNO and other games, and use various arts and crafts techniques in hopes of coaxing critical details of the children's lives to support their cases. "Sometimes we have them paint us a picture of their home back in their country: ‘This is where we see the bad people, and this is our house,'" she says. "We're trying to get their story out no matter how horrible it is, so something good can come out of it, if it helps them remain in this country."
That, after all, is the point of the passion for the staff of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. "In most cases, if we didn't represent our clients, nobody would," Kagan says. "We teach the students that you've got to be really sharp on the law, but you also have to be great with people—people who've experienced things that hopefully you never will."
That's why they're on the case … after case … after case …