Law Students' Labor of Love

In a Local Church Basement, Central American Refugees Fleeing Repression Get Help, and Boalt Students Gain Experience

by Gretchen Kell

At least 45 students from Boalt Hall have opened a law clinic in a church basement near campus to provide free legal help to Central American refugees.

The Central American Refugee Clinic is based at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, an organization set up in the early 1980s by local churches and synagogues to assist people fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.

Today, the sanctuary provides housing, job, legal and other referrals to some 1,000 people--including refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, Haiti, Columbia and Peru--in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church of Berkeley.

Carolyn Patty Blum, a Boalt Hall lecturer who teaches refugee law and runs the law school's field placement clinical program, is the student volunteers' faculty adviser. She said students opened the refugee clinic as a labor of love.

While a few students get credit in Blum's refugee law class for their work at the sanctuary, "at this point, it is not a school sponsored clinic," said Blum. "It's student initiated, student run."

There is a pressing need for the clinic, since the 1991 Temporary Protective Status that the U.S. government granted to approximately 187,000 Salvadorans in this country was terminated last December.

That status was given to all Salvadorans who had entered the U.S. before Sept. 1, 1990, and could prove residence for six consecutive months. It entitled them to live and work in the U.S. legally.

The program had been extended several times. It's name eventually was changed to "Deferred Enforced Departure."

Salvadorans who currently are registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were advised to apply for political asylum to reduce their chance of deportation and to maintain their benefits from the 1991 settlement of American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh.

The lawsuit alleged that the U.S. government had discriminated against nationals of El Salvador and Guatemala in the adjudication of asylum applications filed by citizens of those countries.

The main benefit of the settlement was that the government agreed to give a new asylum interview to all eligible Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

Permanent residence can be applied for one year after asylum is granted.

The Boalt Hall students, aware that some of the 300 Salvadorans served by the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant would face danger in their homeland if they were deported, are eager to help their clients fill out asylum applications.

Members of the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights are working alongside the students as advisers.

A modest operation, the clinic--open from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays--is a series of second-hand tables and chairs scattered throughout the church basement.

The walls and bulletin boards are filled with posters and information about Central American refugee issues. Students, lawyers, and sanctuary workers--some speaking Spanish--pore over documents with refugees.

Mike Holley, a first-year law student at Boalt Hall, had been working at the sanctuary as a volunteer last semester and came up with the idea of opening a law clinic there.

Many Berkeley students have been volunteers there over the years.

"I knew some people at Boalt who were interested in immigration issues," he said.

"At about the time that the federal government decided to terminate its program for Salvadorans, I talked to the sanctuary about setting up a clinic with students coming in.

I knew the sanctuary would be swamped with paperwork to do, and it seemed like assistance that law students could provide."

Mike Smith, assistant director of the refugee rights movement at the sanctuary, said the law students are helping with about one-third of the Salvadoran caseload there. While he only expected each student to do one case each, "many are on their second case now," he said. "Or even their third," added Holley.

The interaction between students and refugees benefits the Salvadorans, said Smith, because "the students help them continue the process of living in the United States and seek benefits to which they are entitled under the settlement and U.S. law."

Death squads still are active in the country, despite the 1992 peace accords, said Smith. Salvadorans who are union members and officers, ex-guerrillas, and human rights workers are among those most likely to face persecution, he said.

Blum added that under U.S. law, a refugee who experienced severe persecution in the past is entitled to protection in this country.

For the Boalt Hall students, said Holley, 28, the experience of working at the clinic helps them learn about interviewing clients--who don't always speak English--and the special needs of refugee clients. "Taking someone's declaration is good practice for writing a persuasive statement of facts," he said.

Working at the sanctuary also has helped Holley determine what to do when he gets his law degree.

"When I got to Berkeley, I noticed Professor Blum working with Central American refugee issues," he said. "That's why I came to law school. I hope to get a non-governmental job working in Latin America on human rights issues. I went to talk to her, and she suggested I work for the sanctuary."

"One of the reasons we like to have volunteers come in is because we find it raises their consciousness, and we get committed activists that way," said Smith. "These students are great. They all are dedicated to and interested in doing this work and in learning a lot."

Holley said he initially was surprised that so many of his fellow students signed up to work at the clinic, but has realized that the "recent Proposition 187 issue and people's reactions to it prompted them to come."


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