Among strangers, during the week of March 20 on a military base in El Paso, around 100 unaccompanied minors between the ages of 13 and 17 spent an indeterminate number of days detained in a giant white warehouse-type structure, loud fans blowing, waiting in uncertainty. Relieved of their belongings, they wore government-issued clothes and slept in an open area full of cots. When directed, they lined up, and guards escorted them from place to place. It’s one of many such places along the U.S.-Mexico border holding children fleeing crises in their home countries and seeking to be reunited with a relative or caregiver who may have come before them.

“It’s civil detention for children,” says Wendy Roman, a second-year UW School of Law student. “We met kids who look just like my siblings. They are asking, ‘What did I do wrong? Why am I here?’ Unfortunately, asylum seekers have the misguided belief that they will be protected when they reach the border. Instead, the system’s built in an adversarial way. As soon as they get processed, they become a number with a removal case against them.”

Roman and three other University of Washington School of Law students spent their spring break in El Paso, along with UW Immigration Law Clinic Director Georgina Olazcon Mozo, touring facilities and observing legal intake services for detained children. Roman, who is on the board of Student Advocates for Immigrant Justice (SAI Justice), ensured that the trip happened for a second year. “We wanted to make it a tradition, an option for people to engage with public service work over spring break,” says Roman. “It’s important to take what you learn in the classroom and put it into practice. Law school can teach you the law all day, but it won’t teach you advocacy. You learn advocacy by working with impacted community members.”

The trip received funding from Project Adelante and the William H. Gates Public Service Law Program (PSL). Gates PSL Director Elizabeth Baldwin helped supervise and train the previous year’s cohort along with former Gates PSL Assistant Director, Haiyun Damon-Feng. At that time, Baldwin was a senior attorney at the Seattle office of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), and she had been deployed at the border to help support the border team while the number of children at the shelter soared to nearly 2,000. This year, Baldwin helped organize the trip, and UW Immigration Law Clinic Director Olazcon Mozo accompanied and supervised the group on the ground. For both trips the El Paso Office of KIND provided leadership on the ground, hosting and coordinating the itinerary.

UW Law Students wearing KIND vests and walking away from the camera in El Paso to advocate for unaccompanied children.

Difficult Realities

“I was prepared to see terrible things, and It’s still really difficult to process or articulate,” says first-year student Lucy Arnold, who joined the SAI Justice board this year. “No one, let alone kids, should have to be in a place like this.”

“All of it was very impactful,” says Olazcon Mozo. “I’m an immigrant who was undocumented at some point. Even for me, taking it all in is difficult. A number of the students are immigrants or daughters of immigrants. It’s close to our identity.”

While all had experience advocating for individuals and systemic change, the realities unfolding at the border added new layers of understanding. From last year’s trip to this one, they saw that holding facilities first intended to be more temporary were becoming more permanent. They visited one migrant housing facility that specialized in helping people with injuries like broken bones, often from falling from a fence trying to cross the border. They also saw other things individuals might experience before reaching a state like Washington.

“These kids were receiving resources to help them find attorneys wherever they end up moving with their sponsor,” says Arnold. “But I know from experience how saturated immigration legal service providers are and have been for years. So, people often will be calling so many different numbers for legal services, maybe getting on a waitlist, or they might not get ahold of anyone at all and face the prospect of self-representation or paying unaffordable expenses to secure a private attorney.”

They also saw how a border city like El Paso functions in constant crisis, with immigration work like law enforcement and border patrol embedded in the economy and service organizations working in tandem with enforcement. In Washington state, on the other hand, advocates have been working to shut down the immigration detention center, the fourth largest in the nation, rather than legitimize something inhumane.

“Part of the system’s violence is turning communities against each other,” says Arnold. “People buy in economically or socially, ‘I have a job in this,’ or, ‘My community depends on this.’ I’d seen other places where that was true, but especially where kids are held in such hostile conditions (despite efforts by KIND to make it more positive), it’s terrible to witness how people’s livelihoods are tied to such cruel institutions. It’s informative to see that and ask how it’s all connected. How can we use this to inform both direct services to individuals navigating immigration processes and broader systemic advocacy efforts?”

Standing Up for Humanity

Learn More

  • Connect with AIDS NW and learn about opportunities to welcome and affirm the dignity of all immigrants, including writing to or visiting a detained immigrant or greeting them at their welcome center.
  • Check out advocacy groups like La Resistencia that offer opportunities to follow and support systemic change.
  • Learn about and follow proposed legislation moving through the Washington State legislature.

Roman emphasizes that you don’t have to be an attorney to get involved. In Washington, there are many ways to help. “It’s not an immigration crisis, it’s a crisis of empathy, of humanity,” she says. “It’s one of the cruelest ways to welcome people into this country You arrive at the border expecting protection, and instead, you’re met with detention after they take all your belongings. When you’re finally released, you’re not given any information. You don’t have money or a phone and you’re expected to figure it out on your own.”

Arnold talks about the experience of being the only person on the trip without lived experience of being an immigrant or a relative of one. “There’s extreme power in people from immigrant communities providing advocacy and being at the forefront,” says Arnold. “It’s also crucial for people like me without lived immigration experience to step up and substantively support and contribute to compassionate immigration policy, and to do this in a way that centers the efforts, priorities, and voices of immigrant communities. We all have deep stakes in condemning the current criminalizing, racist immigration system as fundamentally cruel and against our values, so that we can make our society more accepting, equitable, and safe.”

Another critical piece is honoring people’s dignity rather than defining them by their oppressive experiences. “We cannot reduce people to the worst thing that has happened to them,” says Roman. “As legal advocates, our job is to move levers where we can, so immigrants can continue on their journey and begin to build their lives however they want.”