In rural Louisiana sits a dull gray building surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.
Technically it’s not a prison, but it might as well be. It was also a destination for David Samples and Jared Allen, students at the University of Tennessee College of Law.
The LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La. operates under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is a regional center where immigrants facing deportation are housed. Samples (’17) and Allen (‘19) drove for more than 10 hours to reach the Bayou State in order to speak to Daniel*—one of the facility’s detainees and an undocumented immigrant of the Knoxville community—as well as explore the inner workings of immigration law.
“We were contacted by a local faith group,” said Samples, who also served as the student coordinator for Alternative Spring Break 2017, “and one of their congregates was picked up by the cops and then put into ICE custody and sent down to the middle of nowhere.”
The pair went to LaSalle during visiting hours, and made their way to the partition through which they would talk with Daniel. As law students, they weren’t there as legal representation, but they were there to help and to direct him to other legal resources he might use.
During the course of their conversation—conducted in both English and Spanish, with Allen serving as a translator as best he could—it became clear that, while Daniel’s driving without a license and lack of documentation landed him in LaSalle, there was no discernible reason for why he was stopped in the first place.
“The officer didn’t say anything like ‘Hey, he’s got a tail light out,’ or ‘He was swerving all over the road.’ But he was visibly Latino,” Samples said.
“What we could extrapolate from his facts was that there was no particular reason,” Allen said, explaining that a lawyer could argue that the officer lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion for the stop.
Daniel’s car had also been impounded, leaving his family—still in Knoxville—in a lurch without it. And without Daniel present to sign for its release, the car sat there, racking up daily impoundment fees. Samples and Allen brought the appropriate form for him to sign so that his family might retrieve their only car.
In addition to meeting with Daniel, Samples and Allen observed several immigration court proceedings. They also worked with Catholic Charities in Baton Rouge, helping shore up resources for immigrants who have to appear before a judge without representation—a common challenge as immigration violations result in civil charges rather than criminal, meaning representation is not guaranteed.
“A lot of undocumented immigrants have to go ‘pro se’ before the judge, which means they’ll have to go without an attorney present,” Samples said. “Working out of Catholic Charities, we put together essentially packets of information that the pro se litigants can then take before the judge and say, ‘Judge, I am endangered if I go back to my home country, and here are statistics about how dangerous it is to live in my country, especially for someone like me.’”
Other students back home in Tennessee researched Daniel’s situation as well as other resources for Knoxville’s undocumented community. Students also answered questions from members of the community about the rights of undocumented immigrants.
“We looked at what a person’s rights are when the police or ICE or bounty hunters or vigilantes show up at his or her door—including examples of what a Knox County police badge looks like, what a valid search warrant versus an ICE detainer looks like and what identification bounty hunters are required to have on their person in Tennessee,” said Jenna Macnair (‘19). “Knowing that my work was going to help bring some sense of support and clarity to my neighbors who are directly affected by these issues was really motivating.”
Samples and Allen answered Daniel’s questions to the best of their ability, though when he asked when he would be able to get out of the detention facility, they regretted to tell him they didn’t know. They shared the well-wishes from members of his congregation and provided a letter for him from those back home.
Then, ultimately, it was time for Samples and Allen to leave.
“I remember at the end there was a little slat under the plexiglass,” Allen said. “He poked his fingers underneath as a little gesture, and we put our fingers on his, and that was our first and only contact with him. It was very moving. It was a hug and handshake all in one.”
What a difference spring break can make
Samples and Allen are among the 32 students from the College of Law who chose to forego a trip to the beach or a getaway with friends for spring break 2017 and instead embodied the Volunteer spirit by giving their time to others. All told, these students donated more than 900 hours, some conducting remote research and others representing the University of Tennessee at one of six sites located in four states.
For example, Tennessee students also traveled north during Alternative Spring Break, to Flint, Mich. Residents of Flint, a city just over an hour from Detroit, suffered greatly when officials switched the city’s water source in April, 2014. The water flowing into homes from the Flint River exposed citizens to harmful levels of lead, not to mention other dangers such as bacteria and disinfectants.
When Alaina Woodall (‘18) told people she was going to Flint for Alternative Spring Break, she found many of them were under the impression the crisis had passed. The opposite is true. While the Flint water crisis might not dominate news cycles anymore, the community is still reeling, Woodall said.
“The fact that they are still dealing with severe illness, pipe corrosion, damage to their houses through water heaters corroding, etc., is appalling. What makes it worse is that no one wants to take responsibility for the problem,” Woodall said. “The entities in charge of making the decisions and monitoring the changes are fighting the people about restitution. Meanwhile, people in Flint do not have safe drinking water.”
As a result of these continuing struggles, several class actions and lawsuits have been filed in both state and federal courts in Michigan, according to Flint native and Professor Val Vojdik, who helped Samples conceptualize this Alternative Spring Break trip.
“The actions run the gamut. Some of them are based on environmental law, claiming that the city and the state violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, for example. Others assert claims that the city and state officials knew that the water was poisoned and hid that from the public,” Vojdik said. “And as a result, they’re asserting a number of claims, including race discrimination in violation of the Constitution. Flint has a large African American population. It is 40 percent below the poverty level. So the plaintiffs were claiming that this would not have happened in the wealthy suburbs of Detroit. It wouldn’t have happened at Grosse Pointe, which is predominantly white and very wealthy. They also raised a number of other claims that the city and state violated their substantive due process rights. Their right to bodily integrity, and other various claims. There’s a lot of lawyers involved and a lot of plaintiffs.”
Woodall and the rest of the team of students who went to Flint worked with civil rights groups and for both a private attorney, and several class action lawyers. As part of their work, the students reached out to Flint residents to gather information about their experiences.
“Talking to the people and hearing what they are going through and still struggling with in their daily lives made me realize two things,” Woodall said. “One, it is easy to take for granted that you will have fresh drinking water in the United States, and two, what happened in Flint could happen anywhere and probably is happening in other countries around the world.”
Vojdik saw the impact the trip had on the students. “Going to Flint and working with lawyers and their clients on the ground really demonstrated to them how much of an impact lawyers can have. The law can be such a powerful tool to try and redress situations, where people who individually can’t afford lawyers really need help.”
A longstanding Volunteer Tradition
The immigration and Flint projects were new for this year’s Alternative Spring Break, but the College of Law has a rich history of facilitating pro bono trips for students. One of the longest running partnerships is with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, a non-profit that pairs qualifying individuals with legal services they might not otherwise be able to afford.
“We help a lot of deserving Tennesseans meet their unmet legal needs through that program,” Samples said.
In addition to volunteering with the Knoxville branch of Legal Aid, students also traveled to Chattanooga this year to help set up “We Mean Business,” a new program offering “free transactional legal services to small, local businesses owned by minorities, veterans and women,” according to Legal Aid staff attorney Whitney Standefer, the program’s coordinator. They drafted templates for documents the program would use moving forward and brainstormed about the ways to bring news of the new program to the businesses in the community.
“I was incredibly impressed with our interns. They were professional, punctual, thorough with their work and delightful to be around,” Standefer said. “These were the first interns I have ever had, and I honestly think they spoiled me with an unrealistic standard for what to expect from interns in the future.”
Another Alternative Spring Break trip that has existed for years sends students to the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Participants in this program can learn about the different jobs a legal career in the military might entail, from legal support to trial defense.
“The breadth of the issues the military faces are as wide as the challenges one faces in civilian practice plus the added wrinkle of dealing with an additional set of rules/regulations (known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice) or legal matters in an international environment,” said Chris Davis (‘19), who now serves as an active-duty captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and will transition to the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate after law school. The most meaningful part of the week for Davis was the energy and enthusiasm for service that he saw. “By the end, it was contagious.”
Students were also able to see the way the law works in another legal system while volunteering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C.
“This was an awesome opportunity to learn about something I had no previous experience with. It highlighted the difference between tribal law and other areas of the law most of us deal with, [and] the importance Native American culture has in influencing the laws and judicial process of the tribal courts,” said Elijah Lovingfoss (‘19).
The College of Law visitors gained new insight on a variety of legal issues facing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. They outlined a document for a family safety case, helped explore licensing law so the Cherokee could license their own child care facilities, compiled legal resources for members and worked on a redraft of the Eastern Band’s sex offender ordinance, stretching the students’ thinking in the process.
“Because development of the tribal code is an ongoing process, in many cases Cherokee law did not yet provide a clear answer to our questions,” Spenser Powell (’17) said. “This differed greatly from the usual law student experience of having a wealth of information readily available through Westlaw or Lexis. More creativity and ingenuity was required.”
The students’ creativity and ingenuity was a welcome addition, according to Sunshine Parker, associate attorney general for the Eastern Band of Cherokees (UT Law ‘14). “The Office of the Attorney General is inundated with requests for ordinance reviews, updates and resolutions for submission,” she said. “Having the students work with us helps spread the workload out and it is always beneficial to have a fresh set of eyes take a look at our work.”
Alternative Spring Break gives College of Law students the opportunity to take the law to the people who need it the most.
“One of the things that, in my view, is the best about being an attorney is that you don’t have to be sitting in an office with a blazing fast internet connection and a bunch of law books around you and a bunch of attorneys in suits,” Samples said.
“You can be the sort of guerrilla attorney who goes out into the highways and the hedges and finds people who have legal needs. And then address them.”
Allen, for one, will carry this experience into his life after law school. “Whether you’re working in public interest or private law, you can always find opportunities to work pro bono and to learn about issues that are affecting the community,” he said.
“You can do a great deal of good in a short period of time,” she said. “You don’t have to quit your law practice or take a sabbatical from it to make a difference. A group of dedicated people in a short period of time can really provide important legal assistance.”
Story by Laura Lacy
Originally published in Tennessee Law, Summer 2017