When Joann Bautista listened to the stories of undocumented women in a Texas detention center, she couldn’t help but think of her mom.

Decades ago, her mother fled her native Mexico for the United States. She gained U.S. citizenship after President Reagan signed an immigration reform bill in 1986 that offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

Bautista, a third-year student at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, spent her winter break near the southern border interviewing women detainees who could be eligible for asylum cases and pro bono legal representation.

“Now that I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like for some of these women who come to the United States, the immense trauma that they go through, that will forever shape the way I interact with future clients or immigrants,” said Bautista, who is a citizen because she was born in the United States. “It has made me reflect on my own family’s history. My family is just so lucky to be where we are now.”

University of Maine law student Joann Bautista said the time she spent volunteering at an immigration detention center on the Texas border was “definitely an intense experience.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

University of Maine School of Law students are working directly on the ground during a seismic shift in federal immigration policy.

For years, they have been advising asylum seekers and other immigrants in the school’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic. More recently, the school has offered students like Bautista the chance to travel to the southern border to work with women held in federal detention centers. The students serve as volunteers with the Laredo Project, a collaboration between the international law firm Jones Day and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

And, in both Maine and Texas, the students are hearing emotional stories of trauma and perseverance that are guiding their careers.

“Our philosophy is really to put the student in the position of being the lawyer,” said Deirdre Smith, director of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, which includes all of the law school’s clinical programs. “We think the best way to learn how to practice law is by practicing law.”


Founded in 2012, the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic enrolls six to eight students each semester. Under faculty supervision, they work directly with clients who are seeking legal status in the U.S. Each student handles two to five cases per semester. They earn six hours of academic credit for their work.

Law professor Anna Welch teaches students at the University of Maine Law School, where she runs the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic.

The human rights clinic is part of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, which also includes programs for general practice, prisoner assistance and juvenile justice. In 2016, the combined clinics provided free legal aid to 635 clients from 18 countries of origin.

The human rights clinic doesn’t have an intake line. All referrals come from outside agencies such as the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and local schools.

Burundi native Judicaelle Irakoze is a former client at the clinic. The 23-year-old woman came to the United States alone in 2013, and a team of law students helped her win asylum in 2016. Now a college student, she also started an organization called Choose Yourself to empower young people, especially young women.

“The law students changed my life,” Irakoze said. “I was a teenager, afraid. Not knowing if I was going to manage my life alone. They helped me a lot from really taking care of my case as their own.”

For prospective law students, the human rights clinic can be a draw to Maine.

Bautista grew up in Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa in 2011. She met Anna Welch, the head of the human rights clinic, during a visit to the law school and decided to come east. Now in her third year, her experience working in the clinic has made her certain she wants to practice immigration law.

Hanni Pastinen, also a third-year student, was born in Finland. She was 7 years old when her mother married an American. Pastinen has lived mostly in the Portland area since then and graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2015. She applied to law schools in Boston, but she stayed in Maine in large part because of the clinic.

A man fishes in the Rio Grande near a memorial for a migrant who died while trying to cross the river from Tamaulipas state, Mexico, into the U.S. through Laredo, Texas. Maine students who travel to the border to assist immigrant detainees hear emotional stories of trauma. Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press file

Bautista and Pastinen worked together to file an asylum application for a client last year.

“That was our life much more than classes are,” Pastinen said.


The Laredo Project grew out of a crisis at the southern border.

In 2014, violence in Central America prompted a surge in families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the United States. U.S. Border Patrol stations were overwhelmed, and the federal government began opening more detention centers or holding people in makeshift spaces on military bases.

The law typically allows people who flee their home countries for fear of persecution to apply for asylum in the U.S. within one year of coming here. Many of the people who were crossing the border were eligible, but attorneys worried they did not have access to legal representation. The American Immigration Lawyers Association and other organizations began to establish pro bono services along the border. In Laredo, Jones Day arranged its partnership with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and focused its resources on women and children in detention. The National Immigrant Justice Center also consults with the Laredo Project about legal issues.

Laura Tuell, firmwide pro bono counsel for Jones Day, said attorneys working with the Laredo Project have met with over 1,000 women in detention.

“There are no free legal services here, except for this project,” Tuell said, speaking by phone from Laredo.

Welch first called the Laredo Project last year to arrange a volunteer opportunity for a student intern. Two of her students from the school’s clinic traveled to the border town last year, and their experiences prompted Welch to arrange for others to attend as well.

“It’s really eye-opening for my students to be on the front lines,” Welch said. “Literally from the hotel they stay at, they can see the border. They can see the river that a lot of immigrants swim across to get to the United States.”

Since then, 10 students have traveled to Texas. The trip is voluntary, but every student enrolled in the clinic last semester signed up. One or two students travel to Laredo for a week at a time throughout the semester. Welch said Jones Day covers the travel cost for the students.

“They come back almost unable to articulate how remarkable the experience has been for them,” Welch said. “It’s life-changing for many of them.”

Although law students often volunteer in detention centers, the University of Maine is the only law school in the country to forge such a partnership with the Laredo Project.

“The students, they are smart and enthusiastic,” Tuell said. “They are engaged, and they care passionately about these issues. They added a lot of value to expanding access to information and access to the rule of law for these women.”


Bautista and Pastinen both jumped at the opportunity to work with the Laredo Project. They traveled to Texas together during their winter break to volunteer through Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

When they arrived, the students were assigned to small teams of volunteer attorneys with the Laredo Project. Bautista speaks fluent Spanish, and Pastinen relied on a team member to translate. For hours every day, the teams interviewed women who were detained at the border, listened to their stories and determined whether they were eligible for legal representation.

Some women were newly arrived in the U.S. and had been recently detained. Bautista remembered one woman who wept as she told them about her boyfriend, who died on the way to the border. But they also saw evidence of the broader enforcement priorities of the Trump administration. Two women interviewed by Bautista’s team had been in the U.S. for more than a decade each before they were arrested at Border Patrol checkpoints.

“There are stories of domestic violence, of gang violence, of rape, the most horrible thing you could ever think of happening to a person,” Bautista said. “It’s definitely an intense experience to sit across the table from these women and hear their stories.”


The students said they felt like valued members of their teams, even alongside more experienced attorneys. Pastinen said the Jones Day attorneys on her team practice corporate law in their regular work, so she was able to contribute her knowledge of immigration law and experience at the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic.

“Everything that we learned in clinic clicked when we were down there,” Pastinen said. “There’s no way I would have any of those skills just by taking classes.”

The work was fast-paced and emotionally challenging. The detention center was akin to a jail. They met with more clients each day than they see in a semester at the clinic.

Although they can build a relationship with their clients in Maine, the students have no way of knowing what the future holds for the women they interview. Both students said they want to make a return trip.

“It’s hard to get these women out of their mind,” Welch said.

But they brought the experience back to Maine and, eventually, to their careers.

“That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Bautista said. “Help families stay together.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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