When she received word early last Saturday morning that nearly 50 migrants from Venezuela were transported to Joint Base Cape Cod (JBCC) after being flown to nearby Martha’s Vineyard, UMass Law Professor Hillary Farber sprang into action.
She gathered new Assistant Professor Roni Amit and two Spanish-speaking law students and, the next day, they drove to the shelter housing the migrants. The group, which includes six children, was transported from San Antonio, Texas, as migrants are being relocated to sanctuary destinations. Farber, Amit, and 2Ls Isabel Gonzalez and Carolina Echavarria spent the day in Sandwich, MA alongside other lawyers and law students, providing legal assistance, interviewing, researching, and contacting lawyers to take cases.
“This all happened very quickly,” Farber said. “I got a text the day before from one of the organizers and I quickly assembled two students to help interpret for us and we got down there early Sunday morning. The students knew what a unique experience this was, and they were very professional and helpful.”
Faculty have worked on previous national and international asylum cases
Both Farber and Amit have experienced the situation faced by the migrants firsthand. In 2019, Farber spent her entire sabbatical on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona representing migrants in immigration court who were seeking asylum in the U.S. She volunteered with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project and was named Pro Bono (Attorney) of the Year for her work. She also volunteered with the Tucson Samaritans, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in the desert by leaving water and food along migrant pathways.
Amit, who joined UMass Law this fall and will direct the Immigration Law Clinic, will also teach courses in immigration law and refugee and asylum law. She has taught courses on refugee and immigrant rights at Hunter College, and she practiced law and conducted research with the Refugee & Immigrant Center for Education & Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio, Texas; the African Center for Migration & Society and the Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa; and Lawyers for Human Rights, also in Johannesburg.
Farber is networked into an effort to provide volunteer legal assistance to migrants that included a combination of legal services agencies on the SouthCoast, in Massachusetts, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, private lawyers, and law school clinics. Volunteers were also at the shelter to address non-legal needs, including medical and psychosocial issues.
“We assisted the effort to document the stories of how people got on the plane that flew them to Martha’s Vineyard," Farber said. "We assisted in legal screening, in connecting the migrants with pro bono lawyers to help them pursue humanitarian relief, and in ensuring that all their relevant information and documentation were recorded. The volunteers are amazing and so are the clients.”
UMass Law students and faculty joined coordinated state response
Farber said that the group was fearful and distrustful when they learned they had arrived on Martha’s Vineyard “I think everyone who was on that flight wants this nightmare to end and to get somewhere they can settle, have some peace, and enable their children to go to school. They are anxious about their future, but they are also very grateful for the assistance they have received from the community.”
When they arrived unexpectedly on Martha’s Vineyard, residents joined state and local officials to create temporary shelter and provide necessities. Since the island had limited resources, officials developed a plan to deliver “a comprehensive humanitarian response,” according to a news release from the Office of Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. On Friday, September 16, the commonwealth offered voluntary transportation to a new temporary shelter on JBCC.
The response efforts are being coordinated by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to ensure access to food, shelter, and essential services. Other responding state and local agencies include the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the MA National Guard, and MA State Police, Dukes County and Barnstable County, along with local, state, and federal officials.
Migrants have the option of remaining on the base or leaving if they wish. Volunteer lawyers are working to pursue any humanitarian claims that may be available to them.
Law student experience immigration and asylum law in real time
Both Gonzalez and Echavarria assisted their professors for a real-world experience in immigration and asylum law. They are taking Farber’s criminal law course and Amit’s immigration law course.
“The students got to experience firsthand how lawyers can serve marginalized communities. They were able to see the real-world implications of the laws we talk about in class, and the human beings who are affected by these laws,” Amit said.
The coordinated effort to assist the migrants made an impression on Gonzalez. “Seeing this all come about, seeing so many people come together to offer help and comfort to these migrants is truly so motivating. The opportunity to talk to them firsthand and hear their experiences and grievances was a special moment for me. This experience was extremely heartbreaking but rewarding all at the same time.”
Echavarria said she was happy to help. “The people that came here made it through a journey that lasted over three months in the most dangerous conditions. These are human beings that are just trying to survive. The fact that there were young children makes this matter even more devastating. I’m happy that the people of Massachusetts came together to help and that I was able to be part of it.”