My summer experience with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights project was rewarding and utterly eye-opening. When I first applied to law school at the University of Oregon, immigration law was one area of interest among many. I applied to a concurrent degree program because I wanted to pursue a career in law while also focusing more specifically on international issues. My decision to pursue a masters in International Studies concurrently with a J.D. was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I would not have chosen this internship if not for my research into immigration law and policy, theories of migration, anti-immigrant sentiment and detention and deportation policies within an international human rights law framework.
Having spent the last year writing papers on various immigration issues, I had yet to actually study how immigration law and policy works in practice. So much of school is focused on how the law works in theory, however, as we find out when we begin to work in the legal field, practice can often be very different. Through my internship with the Florence Project, I was able to see how law does not necessarily operate how it is supposed to. Many of those who are detained in immigration detention and facing deportation have children who are U.S. citizens, have worked and lived in the United States for over 20 years and have no criminal history. Others are legitimate asylum-seekers who have experienced extreme degrees of torture in their home country. That these people are put in detention, some of them in mandatory detention with no bond eligibility, is troubling.
Working with people detained in immigration detention centers was difficult at times, yet also rewarding. I would go to the detention center twice a week to help with intakes and to teach a “Know Your Rights” training. Because the vast majority of immigrants in removal proceedings cannot afford an attorney, almost all the people I worked with this summer were pro se. The Florence Project helps these individuals gather documents, apply for various forms of relief from removal proceedings and counsels individuals on what forms of relief may be available. Some days there were only five to ten people at a Know Your Rights presentation, while other days there were upwards of forty. The numbers depended on how many people were apprehended or were transferred to that particular detention center.
Many people in removal proceedings were there for reasons beyond their control. Many had families in the United States and many had no criminal convictions aside from being in the United States without documents. What I learned most from working at the Florence Project is that the law is not always just nor does it always apply to everyone equally. This experience provided me with an amazing insight into the realties of immigration law and has motivated me to continue on a career path where I can advocate for people’s rights. Although this internship was demanding both emotionally and educationally, I know that I have found an area of law that I am passionate about and that will allow me to help those in desperate need of guidance.