Whether investigating racial matters in Havana, advocating for asylum seekers in Texas, or building a home in Florida, dozens of Fordham Law students served the public interest in a myriad of ways on their alternative spring break trips this year.
The spring break experiences of groups such as Universal Justice, a student-run organization in Fordham Law’s Public Interest Resource Center, follow in a long tradition of public-service projects. Stein Scholars and PIRC members have sponsored alternative spring break trips for almost 30 years, reflecting the service-oriented ethos of the Law School.
Here are a few of their stories.
Universal Justice – Cuba
A year after President Obama reopened American relations with Cuba, members of Universal Justice journeyed to Havana on a fact-finding mission to learn what extent race and racism play in everyday society. While ascertaining concrete information on structural racism proved difficult, UJ members’ conversations with Cuban officials and residents raised the specter that a change is underway. UJ presented its findings during a two-day national conference for the full normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations held at Fordham Law School in March.
“The biggest thing with Cuba in terms of race is they’re finally opening up the dialogue,” the trip’s advisor 3L Josh Colon said, noting that, while Cuban law mentions race, this cultural conversation has mostly been absent. “There’s more of a feeling you can speak out about race and won’t get in trouble for it.”
Cuba’s tenuous, newfound relationship with the United States has jumpstarted its tourism and restaurant industries. Yet salaries for most Cubans remain startling low. The students noted that a doctor makes $90 per month while a tour guide can make hundreds of dollars in tips from just one group. They also encountered a former lawyer turned restaurant owner who left his legal practice out of economic necessity.
“There’s a lot of hope that things will continue to move in a positive direction,” 3L Susan Moskovits added, in reference to the hope among Cubans that trade will open and the embargo—referred to by Cubans as a blockade—will lift.
Universal Justice’s Cuba trip this spring followed recent trips to the Philippines and Dominican Republic. For UJ member and 2L Olivia Scandura, the experiences have been invaluable.
“Just having an understanding of how different countries’ legal structures work is extremely important, and it’s due to Fordham and the UJ program that I’ve had these opportunities,” Scandura said.
Immigration Advocacy Project – Dilley, Texas
Almost two thousand miles southwest of New York, 1L Jessie Boas spent her spring break at the South Texas Family Residential Center interviewing asylum-seeking women from Latin America about the horrid conditions that forced them to flee north to the U.S. border. Boas, a board member for Immigration Advocacy Project, gained the women’s trust by first asking, in Spanish, about their kids, hobbies, and favorite food, building trust. Then the hard part began.
Boas and other IAP volunteers prepared the women 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.
“I was taken by the ability of these women to keep their composure while they were telling the most harrowing, gut-wrenching stories I’ve ever heard,” Boas said. “I don’t know if it was because of tremendous inner strength or if they were numb to the experience.”
Fordham has sent four separate groups, including three from the IAP, to Dilley since spring 2016. The IAP recently received the NYSBA President’s Pro Bono Service Award.
For Boas, who first became interested in serving immigration populations during a three-year stint with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, the hands-on experience she received in Dilley afforded her an “incredible opportunity” to do client interviews, learn to adapt to adversarial conditions, and work alongside other students eager to fight for immigrant rights.
“I’d encourage any law school student or lawyer to go to Dilley for a week or two weeks,” Boas said, adding that the trip combines a major public-interest issue with an opportunity to develop lawyering skills that translate across many legal fields.
Habitat for Humanity – New Smyrna Beach, Florida
As the president of Fordham Law’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, 3L Lauren Mastronardi obtained quite literal hands-on experience during her spring break trip.
Mastronardi and a small group of students and administrators, including Public Interest Resource Center Assistant Dean Tom Schoenherr, spent five days on Florida’s east coast helping to build the interior of a new home. Hammering boards provided a welcome opportunity to give back and take a break from legal concerns, said Mastronardi, who plans on working for Latham & Watkins in New York after graduation.
“A home is such an essential part of people’s lives,” she said. “It gives them a base. Working alongside the person who will own the house gives you an opportunity to see the fruits of your labor.”