Over spring break, 3L Stein Scholar Rodrigo Bacus stood on the verge of tears inside a maximum-security prison in the Philippines, listening to the oppressed lift their voices in a song celebrating freedom, hope, and justice. The political prisoners in Metro Manila had shared stories with Bacus and his classmates of their activism and tribulations, notably imprisonment without conviction. Now, in song, they revealed their spirit, undefeated.
“No matter how repressed they are, people continue to fight for change and a better life,” reflected Bacus, a Philippines native who organized the alternative spring break trip for Universal Justice, a student-run organization in Fordham Law’s Public Interest Resource Center.
Stein Scholars also organized service-oriented alternative spring break trips to Texas to advocate for asylum rights for women and children detained upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and New Orleans to aid in judicial bypass for reproductive rights of girls under the age of 18. Stein Scholars and PIRC members have sponsored alternative spring break trips for almost 30 years, reflecting the service-oriented ethos of the Law School.
Last summer, Bacus discovered his native Philippines much the same as he left it 15 years prior, despite the political elite’s claims of progress. In some ways, the government used the law to exact more sanctions, he said.
His experience working with the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) convinced him a return trip with Universal Justice would be a worthwhile firsthand introduction for his classmates into contemporary human rights, how people’s lawyering works, and the role the law plays, for better or worse.
Bacus and eight Universal Justice members met with members of the NUPL and the urban-poor organization Kadamay, political prisoners, political candidates, and professors to examine two themes during their weeklong stay in the Philippines.
The first centered on how to protect human rights when Filipinos are worried about being an instrument of American military goals, as a result of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement the two nations signed in 2014. The second dealt with how to defend these people when they come under attack for voicing concerns.
Understanding the issues Filipinos face required more than talking with them, Bacus noted. It required seeing firsthand the conditions of political prisoners or seeing the walls that a plastic recycling plant near Manila’s outskirts was forced to erect at its own expense.
Government officials claimed the walls were a flooding prevention measure, Bacus said. Local urban-poor leaders contested the walls were born of a bribe and designed to prevent outsiders from viewing plant conditions.
“It made me angry,” Bacus said, “but strengthened my resolve to address these things and to inspire as many people as possible to understand these conditions and address them in some form.”
The Universal Justice plans to continue to provide comparative legal analysis to Filipino lawyers to help address their concerns related to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, Bacus said. It also offers continued aid with claims regarding unjust prison conditions, he added.
Freezing in Texas
3L Stein Scholar Razeen Zaman and five of her classmates in the Immigration Advocacy Project traveled to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, with Feerick Center for Social Justice Executive Director Dora Galacatos and Bree Bernwanger, director of the Feerick Center’s New York Unaccompanied Immigrant Children and Immigrant Families Project. They participated as part of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
From March 20–26, they helped many women prepare for their Credible Fear Interview, a requirement of U.S. immigration services for those who want to apply for asylum and are subject to expedited removal. If an asylum officer finds an individual to have a credible fear of persecution or torture, the officer refers her case to an immigration judge for a full hearing on the asylum claim.
News reports of immigration detention centers did not prepare Zaman for what she encountered at the STFRC, located 80 miles southwest of San Antonio. Outside the center, the white-hot Texas sun loomed high. Once inside, a gloom replaced the light.
“Although Judge Dolly Gee ruled last July that family detention violates the Flores settlement, Central American women and children are still being detained in full force without any sign that this incredibly inhumane policy is coming to an end,” Zaman said. “It was very disturbing to see firsthand the babies and mothers who were being detained.”
Volunteers were not allowed to inspect the detainees’ sleeping quarters, Zaman said, but they heard stories about women and children being held in cramped, very cold conditions (what the woman described as an hielera [icebox]) once they were picked up by Customs and Border Patrol and before being transferred to Dilley Detention Center. The women also said guards had berated them, encouraging them to choose voluntary departure. Zaman observed that many of the women and children were physically sick and had terrible stories of fleeing gang threats, rape, extortion, and more.
Zaman’s family detention center experience highlighted how more direct service help is needed in Texas and how important it is to have people on the policy side work to change immigration and asylum laws. Post graduation, she will continue the fight for immigrant rights.
“The goal is to end immigration detention,” Zaman said, noting that immigration detention is effectively incarceration. “It’s a terrible thing to re-traumatize people who have left their countries because of severe trauma. The United States should honor its principle of family unity by immediately ending family detention.”
Hard Work in the Big Easy
The lure of fresh seafood, live music, and a carefree atmosphere attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to New Orleans on an annual basis. 3L Stein Scholar Hailey Flynn’s first visit, however, resulted from a desire to reform a darker, seldom discussed side of the Crescent City.
“The hostile environment toward abortion across the South, the targeted restrictions against abortion providers shuttering clinics, and the challenges that teens face in accessing essential health services in Louisiana piqued my interest,” she recalled. Flynn learned about the Louisiana Judicial Bypass Project when she met Elisabeth Hofmann, the Tulane University student in charge of the project in 2015, which motivated her to organize the trip.
Flynn and four other members of Fordham’s Law Students for Reproductive Justice spent a week at Tulane, where they learned the ins and outs of Louisiana’s parental consent laws and the steps required to get a judicial bypass order—enabling girls under the age of 18 to lawfully obtain an abortion. This process is daunting for girls who are unable to obtain parental consent because it is unsafe or impracticable, Flynn said, and increases the likelihood they will pursue clandestine alternatives to abortion or carry an unwanted child to term.
Flynn’s team spoke with clinic administrators about the challenges to accessing judicial bypass and abortion services in Louisiana and created a variety of documents reflecting a nuanced understanding of the judicial bypass law in Louisiana. These documents included training for hotline volunteers, a pamphlet to be distributed in clinics, a checklist of the judicial bypass process, a legal research memo, and a meme to direct web traffic to the LJBP website.
Part of the team’s mission, Flynn explained, was to facilitate the connection between clinics and attorneys providing representation to ensure girls in need of an abortion were not denied this right because they could not navigate the legal system.
“I felt proud of the work that we accomplished while we were in New Orleans and felt even more committed to ensuring that the ill-conceived parental consent laws do not block access to girls’ and adolescents’ fundamental right to abortion,” Flynn said.
After graduation, Flynn will be a Georgetown Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellow at HIPS in Washington, D.C., where she will advocate for sex workers’ rights and on harm reduction issues.