Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Partnering for Immigrant Freedom: Colorado College and the Southern Poverty Law Center

As tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants cross into the United States each month, humanitarian organizations face unprecedented challenges, not only along the border but also in jurisdictions across the country.

Few places are as difficult or dangerous for undocumented immigrants as the state of Georgia, where immigration courts and detention centers “are notorious for being incredibly hostile” to immigrants, said Anjali Nair, managing attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI).

While immigration courts nationwide denied 52 percent of asylum petitions in 2015, the Atlanta immigration court denied asylum in 98 percent of cases. Similarly, judges at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, denied asylum to 93.5 percent of their asylum cases from 2013 to 2018.

Within the detention centers themselves, there are many reports of unsanitary and unsafe conditions, abuse of inmates, inadequate medical and mental health care, and a lack of legal representation. Nationwide, just 14 percent of detained immigrants have legal representation.

Attorneys with the SPLC, expecting things to get worse for detained immigrants after the 2016 election, launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) “to protect the due process rights of individuals in immigration detention and those in immigration court,” Nair said. The program advocates for detained immigrant clients by filing bond motions or parole requests, hoping to secure their release and reunite them with their families while their cases are pending.

To help as many immigrants as possible, SIFI depends on a nationwide network of volunteers and partners. Students at one partner organization, Colorado College, a private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, are acquiring life-changing skills, global perspectives, and career preparation as they work to help immigrants.

Teaching Globalization and Immigration at Colorado College

Over the past twenty years, Eric Popkin, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Colorado College, has taught many community engagement courses that give students a first-hand look at the immigration crisis.

In one recent class, Globalization and Immigration on the US/Mexican Border, students learned about the increasing numbers of immigrants arriving at the US border, especially women, children, and families from the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala). After in-depth readings, discussions, and training to work with vulnerable immigrant populations, students traveled to help in the South Texas Family Residential Center, a detention center in Dilley, Texas.

The students, many of whom could speak Spanish, met with women detained in the center and prepared them for their credible fear assessments, “the first step of a long asylum process in which the US government determines whether that immigrant has a credible fear of persecution upon return back to their country of origin,” Popkin said. “If that’s given a positive determination, those immigrants are allowed to spend time in the United States filing for formal asylum.”

In their conversations with the women, students were “not just listening but doing so much more than that, being able to have that supportive contact with them that, honestly, they don’t get often,” said Veronica Fernandez-Diaz, a student in the class. The women’s stories were “very heart breaking. . . . I could tell that it was re-traumatizing to a lot of the women to have to rethink about those experiences.”

Through this class and other community-engagement experiences in Arizona and Texas, Colorado College “students situate the issues they engage with in a broader analysis of root causes of the migratory flow (including US foreign policy), immigration policy, and possible solutions,” Popkin said.

Partnering with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative

In summer 2018, ten Colorado College students joined SPLC lawyers for a two-and-a-half-week partnership in three detention centers in Georgia.

Popkin carefully screened student applicants based on educational background, familiarity with immigration issues, and Spanish language proficiency. (There are two spots available for students who only speak English.) The SPLC also screened student applicants and conducted background checks. Most of the students had taken one of Popkin’s immigration courses, and many students had personal or family experience within the immigration system.

“I’m very deliberate about recruiting as diverse a student body as possible for this experience” in order to draw “on the assets that students from many different backgrounds have,” Popkin said.

Before students left campus, they worked with Popkin and the college’s wellness center, which provided an extensive training session about working with vulnerable and traumatized populations. In Atlanta, students got three more days of training, followed by additional sessions led by SPLC staff at the three detention center sites where students were placed.

In those centers, students assisted attorneys working to get their clients paroled, allowing them to leave the detention center and be reunited with their families until courts decide their permanent status.

“We have a lot of access issues within the detention centers just simply trying to meet with our clients,” Nair said.

Attorneys and their staff hoping to meet with clients must usually wait several hours or compete with other attorneys and clients for meeting space. Many are simply denied access to their clients. According to Popkin, the centers often say, “We can’t find that person,” or “It’s count time. You’ll have to wait an hour while we count everyone in the facility.”

“The students really were a saving grace, really pushing forward a lot of client meetings or intake interviews that we had to do,” Nair said. By waiting at detention centers, visiting current clients, screening potential clients for representation, attending immigration court hearings, and researching, collecting, and translating documents, students help attorneys take on more cases.

“They’ve had really long-term effects on our programming,” Nair said.

As they visited with clients, the students saw and heard about the conditions detainees faced, including dirty or unsafe environments, rancid food and water, inadequate healthcare, or solitary confinement.

Fernandez-Diaz was struck by how restrictive the detention center in Georgia was compared with the one she had worked with in Texas.

“We can’t even hold their hand just to say hi,” she said. “It’s just us in a room separated by glass.”

One client she spoke with had been separated from his child. “They didn’t tell him where his child was going to be,” she said. “He would just keep referring back to his child, like, ‘Where's my child? I want to see my child.’”

She also met a transgender woman who, after being abused in her home country and in the detention center, was “almost giving up on hope.” However, the SPLC lawyers fought to get her out, gathering documents and drumming up public support. Finally, she was released.

Witnessing a success story like this gives students “a degree of exhilaration,” Popkin said, but unfortunately, far more often students must process “really, really devastating stories of women and families that have come to the US.”

“A lot of people have similar stories to the one she experienced, unfortunately, but at the end of the day the system isn’t created for them,” Fernandez-Diaz said. “It takes something super extreme—so much support—for them to be able to get out, even though the stories are similar.”

During the two-week experience, Popkin travels to the three detention centers where students are stationed to guide them in reflecting on their work.

“This program allows students to engage directly with the complex contexts tied to immigrant detention, asylum, and associated human rights abuses,” Popkin said. “Liberal arts learning should offer students opportunities to engage directly with populations most affected by corporate domination of global economies, climate change, militarism, and the dismantling of democratic structures leading to increased precarity, particularly for communities of color and other vulnerable populations.”

For many of the students like Fernandez-Diaz, reflecting on their personal experiences made the partnership more poignant. Having arrived in the United States as a child, she is “protected under DACA. I’m considered a ‘Dreamer,’” she said. “It’s unjust that there’s so much humanity given to us while there’s so much humanity taken away from detainees. It made me see with my own eyes the extent to which that happened.”

At the end of the experience, Popkin brings the whole group together for more extended reflection. Through these reflections on their experiences, students see how the detained immigrants fit into a wider system of oppression and profit.

The centers are privately owned by for-profit companies, and local politicians entice companies to locate the centers in their communities to create jobs. Subcontracting for healthcare, food, laundry, and phones has turned the centers into big economic engines for their regions.

“The only jobs in some of these rural areas are the jobs of the detention center,” Popkin said, and students see “the extent to which local communities are dependent on these jobs.”

Many detained immigrants are even put to work, sometimes for wages between $1 and $4 per day.

“That drive for privatization and subcontracting means that conditions are poor to extract a larger profit,” Popkin said.

After the second cohort of eleven students finishes in summer 2019, Popkin will work with Colorado College’s career center and the SPLC to enhance students’ professional development through a workshop that brings together students, SPLC legal policy and advocacy staff members, and representatives from activist organizations to talk about possible career paths for students interested in the issue of immigration. Following the workshop, the college’s alumni office is organizing an event for students to present on their experience to Atlanta-area alumni.

“The program enables students to acquire skills that prepare them for potential careers tied to immigrant legal and advocacy work or, more broadly, careers in policy and activism,” Popkin said. Many of these skills “may not be apparent: working in groups, learning how to navigate institutional roadblocks, dealing with ambiguous/nuanced testimony or policy contexts, working across cultural difference, or public dissemination of findings.”

Following the summer partnership, many students have expressed interest in pursuing careers as immigration lawyers, paralegals, activists, or policy makers. Others stay in touch with the SPLC to volunteer between semesters or inquire about job opportunities, helping the organization sustain its nationwide network.

For Fernandez-Diaz, the partnership has transformed her future, as she plans to become an advocate for detained immigrants.

“Once you see stuff like that and the mistreatment that happens, you can’t really go back to a normal life and ignore this,” she said.

Faculty, students, or others interested in partnering or volunteering with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative are encouraged to visit or email