Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2019

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UNLV Immigration Clinic offers legal counsel to undocumented immigrants, children


Wade Vandervort

From left: Athena Eliades, Caleb Green, Michael Kagan, David Chavez, Martha Arellano and Homero Gonzalez of the UNLV Immigration Clinic.

As a professor of law and the director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, Michael Kagan’s passions are twofold: make sure students get the education they need and make sure undocumented immigrants, primarily immigrant children, get a fair day in court. Kagan has kept watch over the expansion of the clinic the past few years, and while he calls its advocacy “a drop in the bucket,” he and UNLV law students are providing a service he talked about with the Weekly.

Tell me about the history of the clinic.

The clinic is in its 16th year. It used to be quite small, so we would take a few very challenging immigration cases and give them to students. One of its first responsibilities was to be a teaching hospital for lawyers, and we also have law students who work on real-life cases.

Our clinic began to change in 2014, when [we started] to provide lawyers to unaccompanied children. That brought two lawyers to our clinic and increased the number of cases we take. Since, we’ve been able to transform that into the Bernstein Children's Rights Program, launch the university legal services program, and we have tried to fill needs that aren’t being met in the community in Southern Nevada.

What are some of those needs?

There’s a lack of legal services for immigrants in our city, especially for people facing deportation and those in detention. Our biggest interest in expanding right now is in detention cases. They are the people who have the most urgent need for legal defense, for someone to stand by them, but they’re also the people who have the hardest time getting it. Three-fourths of those detained by ICE do not have a lawyer.

Who works at the clinic?

Most of them are third-year law students. Our goal is to make being in the clinic the pinnacle of their law school career because they are getting to apply every skill they’ve learned up to now. They get to see what immigrants in our own community go through as they try to stay here. I think it’s eye-opening. It’s inspiring for them but also very stressful.

Can you describe the kinds of cases the clinic takes on?

We have young children—some of our clients can’t read yet—who are up against the federal government. The Department of Homeland Security is deploying police officers and lawyers to get them out of the country, and we’re one of the few places kids can go to in the state of Nevada to have someone help them in court. Most of these kids fled grotesque violence in Central America and are in a desperate fight to stay out of the hands of gangs who have threatened to kill or rape them. They have seen dead bodies or people who have been murdered—things that no child, no adult should have to witness. And the government wants them deported. So we do what we can to make sure that these kids get the fairest day in court possible, which is the least that I’d want for my own kids.

What is your success rate?

We’ve been very successful in keeping many of them safe. [Another] big area where we want to increase our work is people who are detained by ICE. ICE nationwide is detaining many people who don’t have any criminal record, or any serious criminal record. Las Vegas has one of the largest undocumented populations of any city in the U.S., but what is really important to understand about undocumented people in Las Vegas is that most have lived here longer than me. Most undocumented residents have been here more than 10 years, and our kids go to school together. We are now living in a situation where if someone who has lived here for 15 years, raised a family and the worst thing they’ve ever done in their lives is cross the border and they don’t have enough money to pay a speeding ticket, they can be turned over to ICE and their family torn apart. So we want to do more to defend people in detention, which means, first, to try to get them out of detention, let them be with their families while their cases are being resolved, and then to make the argument that can be made under the law for them to be able to stay in the country where they’ve been for so long.

What does the ICE situation look like here?

In the Trump era, immigration has been on the front page virtually every day, but most of the attention is taken up by things going on at the border. We’re also the front line right here in Southern Nevada, but the battle for Las Vegas is going on in a far more quiet way. You don’t have a big operation that a TV crew can go out and film; it’s just one case at a time. Most of the people taken by ICE are taken to local jails on something minor like a speeding ticket.

How many deportation cases does ICE have open locally?

ICE is starting between 200 and 300 new deportation cases every month. To put this in perspective, there was recently an ICE raid where they arrested about 280 people at a work site in Texas. That was on TV because it was something the TV crews could film. ICE in Las Vegas does that every month, but it’s not on TV.

Why are the numbers high here?

We have a very large immigrant population. Las Vegas is an immigrant city. People in Las Vegas are often blind to the numbers of immigrants that they’re meeting every day. I almost don’t like the word “immigrant” in this context because when we say “immigrant,” people think of someone who is going to be very foreign, but most immigrants have been here a long time. They are as native as anyone else. It’s because we have so many people come from other countries and because we have such a large population that is vulnerable and undefended that there’s a lot of immigration enforcement activity. ... If people don’t want their neighbors to be deported, if people don’t want the parents of their kids’ friends to be taken away, then tell someone. That’s how our country is designed to work.

A flyer with racist speech was recently left on the Immigration Clinic’s door. How do you respond to something like that?

The message that I want everyone to know, especially the person who put up those signs, is that we never stop working, and we work harder now. ... We should talk about how it happened on our campus. Those of us who do immigrant rights work try to defend our neighbors, and we occasionally get very threatening messages on social media. We should talk about those things, but in the context of “these [things] are happening in our society and the way to respond to it is to do more.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.