Every week, thousands of unaccompanied, “overflow” immigrant youth crowd the Fort Bliss Emergency Intake Site (EIS) in El Paso, Texas, an unlicensed mass care facility constructed of tents and trailers. The increasing numbers of children, allegations of abuse and dangerous conditions have made the EIS a subject of litigation and governmental investigations. Along with the Adelante Pro Bono Project, four UW Law students (now alumni – Metta Girma ‘22, Maria Gomes ‘22, Soledad Mendoza ’22 and Isabel Skilton ’22) traveled to the southern U.S. border to provide legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children detained at the Fort Bliss EIS. They worked with Kids In Need of Defense (KIND).

When the UW Law team arrived at the site, the population of children had more than doubled over the weekend, from around 450 children to over 1,000. In just one week, the population continued to increase up to 1,300 children, one-third of whom spoke an indigenous language and were therefore unable to access information and services that were generally provided in Spanish.

The students immediately jumped into action to meet the tremendous need of these youth to access legal services. Over the course of the week, the UW Law team provided legal services for 1,000 children. The team met individually with 120 children through individual legal screenings and interpreted “Know Your Rights” presentations, ensuring that indigenous children also received access to important legal information.

Students assisted children in advocating for their right to receive adequate medical care during their time at the EIS facility. They advised children on what to expect with respect to their immigration and asylum claims. They helped children understand and navigate the complicated processes they would undergo in order to be released from federal immigration custody. And they comforted children who had experienced extreme trauma, including trauma arising from family separation, abuse, ongoing detention and death.

“I felt particularly anxious the first day at the Emergency Intake Shelter,” said Isabel Skilton ‘23. “The morning felt rushed, and the stress of feeling disoriented impacted my ability to process my surroundings, instructions, and ability to provide legal service. I looked to others who were maintaining calm and attempted to mirror their approach to the situation. My main sources of calm throughout the week were the amazing KIND employees who worked at Fort Bliss and my classmates, who handled each step of the process with patience and grace.”

Each student worked tirelessly to rise to the challenge. Maria Gomes ‘23 shared that many of the children’s stories reminded her of her own parents’ difficult immigration story, which motivated her to serve these children through immigration advocacy.

“I will never forget about the children I met,” she said. “I feel that my confidence has grown and that I have developed a variety of skills that I will be using when working in the future with my clients. Having this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was rewarding, and I hope that this border trip can be funded again in the future so that other students can experience it.”

Metta Girma ‘23 was inspired to serve as many children as possible even though “we were so busy and the amount of work to be done felt endless.”

The KIND legal team hosting the UW Law students emphasized that the UW Law students were absolutely critical to their ability to meet the increased demand for legal services brought on by the influx of children during the week.

“The UW Law students provided critical support to KIND’s Ft. Bliss team given the spike in numbers that coincided with their trip,” said Rebekah Fletcher, Acting Director for KIND’s Emergency Response Programs. “They arrived extremely well-equipped with the skills and experiences gained through UW Law clinics and prior internships, and they were able to quickly engage in direct services with children. The UW Law team set the bar for volunteers and blew past law student volunteers out of the water.”

Thanks to the support received for this project, UW Law was able to bring in an expert in trauma stewardship to meet with the students both before and after the trip. The students found these sessions to be both impactful and necessary to prepare for and reflect on their work as well as the difficult circumstances and harsh conditions they witnessed. The students noted that this type of support was integral to helping them sustain themselves in doing the difficult, impactful work that they will go on to do throughout their legal careers.

The work was deeply personal for some students and reaffirmed their commitment to use their legal education and law degree to serve their communities. 

“I am the daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico who came to the United States in search for a better life for my family,” said Soledad Mendoza ‘23. “Because of their sacrifices and the strong support of my community, I was able to develop skills in law school that will enable me to be a resource for immigrant communities. I feel incredibly grateful for being able to participate in this unique learning opportunity that will impact my future career for years to come.”

Isabel Skilton ‘23 said, “My experience at the border was life-changing, the kind of experience that has the potential to shape the careers and lives of public interest law students. I do not fully understand the impact that this experience has had on me, but I do know that I have seen things that I will carry with me the rest of my career. I am inspired to fight back against monumental systemic inequities even when they feel insurmountable or unconquerable.”