UMass Law UMass Law: UMass Law students assist newly arrived migrant families in MA shelter

UMass Law UMass Law: UMass Law students assist newly arrived migrant families in MA shelter
UMass Law students assist newly arrived migrant families in MA shelter

Students experienced real-world issues in international law

Held on November 4, 2023
UMass Law students volunteered as interviewers and interpreters for approximatey 30 newly arrived migrant families to prescreen them for legal assistance and resource needs.

With emergency shelters nearing their limit to house homeless and migrant families, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently turned to its only public law school to help alleviate an urgent need. In response, UMass Law students and faculty eagerly jumped in to volunteer.

On Saturday, November 4, 24 UMass Law students, led by Professor Roni Amit, volunteered as interviewers and interpreters for the day at the Baymont Hotel in Dartmouth. Approximately 30 newly arrived families, primarily from Haiti and Latin America, are housed at the hotel and needed to be screened to assess their legal situation.

Some students volunteered as Spanish and Haitian Creole interpreters while others pre-screened migrants to determine their potential eligibility for work authorization   The pre-screening will help the state prepare for this week's work authorization clinic being held jointly by Massachusetts' Healey-Driscoll Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. While the state is organizing appointments and providing transportation from shelter sites to the clinic, the Biden-Harris administration is providing onsite support to collect and process work authorizations.

The pre-screenings also helped to identify the families' needs for additional legal assistance and other resources. 

"In addition to calling on other service providers, the state turned to its only public law school to help meet an urgent need to serve newly arrived migrants. Students rose to the challenge, showing up on a Saturday to help ensure that these migrants could get legal assistance and access to any resources for which they may be eligible. Students learned about the situation facing newly arrived migrants and the need for more legal assistance to help an under-represented population," said Amit. 

Approximately 30 families were staying at the Baymont Hotel in Dartmouth and students met with them there to go through their immigration histories and help the state identify who should attend the upcoming clinic, Amit added. The National Guard was on site and helped facilitate the meeting logistics.

In addition to Amit, who also directs the Immigration Law Clinic, UMass Law Professor Hillary Farber and Clinic Coordinator Crystal Desirey attended while Assistant Dean for Public Interest Law John Quinn went to show support for the students.

"This work is a great example of justice in action," said UMass Law Dean Sam Panarella. "I am proud of our wonderful students and dedicated staff and faculty for coming together to serve a community in need. As the Commonwealth's public law school, we have an important role to play in helping to ensure all individuals receive these critical services.”

Held on November 4, 2023
UMass Law students prepare to prescreen migrant families, primarily from Haiti and Latin America, and participate in one of the first steps in the American immigration process. They were joined by UMass Law faculty members.

Students reflect on their real-world experience 

Among the volunteers were 3Ls Benjamin Alpert and Natalia Vargas, both of whom speak Spanish fluently, and Grace St. Urbain, who speaks Haitian Creole. All three students participate or participated in UMass Law's Immigration Law Clinic. Alpert helped to interpret for the volunteers as they asked questions while Vargas worked with the migrants on pre-screening. St. Urbain helped to translate Spanish, French, and Creole while assisting her classmates in filling out the screening forms.

"Speaking to individuals during a crisis is difficult enough but being able to do so in your native language removes some of the barriers that are inevitable without a translator or interpreter,"     Vargas said.

"I felt called to help members of our community navigate the complex processes that are involved with the immigration clinic," Vargas added. "If the families qualified, we filled out the necessary documentation with them and instructed them on next steps so that they could eventually be given legal authorization to work in the U.S."

Based on her internship and experience in the Immigration Law Clinic, St. Urbain said she was able to walk the migrants through their potential next steps and how they should prepare for their next meeting.

"It was lovely to be part of one of their first stages in the American immigration process," said St. Urbain. "While many of the migrants spoke Spanish due to their time in Chile, it was such a gift to be able to connect with them in their native language. They had some questions at first, but as we met with them, they were able to open up and become more comfortable about sharing their dreams and aspirations about a life in the U.S."

"I felt like I helped to provide an important service to folks who have recently arrived in Massachusetts.  I am appreciative of the right to shelter law and that the Commonwealth places great value on ensuring shelter for those who need it," said Alpert.

The law students found this real-world experience valuable to their legal education as well as rewarding. "This experience reaffirmed the importance and necessity of pro-bono legal advocacy and easily accessible resources for folks navigating the immigration system," Alpert added.

"This reinforced what was already evident to me about our immigration system. There is an urgent humanitarian need for legal advocates who can preserve the rights of individuals fleeing unstable and uninhabitable conditions in search of basic human needs like shelter and safety," Vargas said.

"I learned the importance of being present, listening, and teamwork," said St. Urbain. "We had so many volunteers from the law school that we were able to screen all of the families in under 3 hours! I was so grateful to be a part of this collaboration of resources and efforts in our community, and I cannot wait to do it again!"

The work authorization legal clinic will build on several current state programs that provide legal assistance and help train and hire shelter residents, including the Commonwealth Corporation Foundation, MassHire, Immigrant Assistance Services, Resettlement Agencies Services, a pro bono program with immigration organizations, and legal services contracts.