Many students at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law spend the week of spring break relaxing. 2L Ayushi Kokroo and several of her classmates put this year’s break to a far different purpose—one that ultimately reminded Kokroo of why she came to law school to begin with.
On March 11, Kokroo and five fellow students departed for El Paso, Texas, and a week of pro bono work with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. The trip was sponsored by Drexel Kline Law’s Immigration Law Society, or ILS, of which Kokroo is co-president.
“This was such a special experience,” she says of the time spent in El Paso.
Also volunteering with Las Americas were 2Ls Micaela Kitchen, Kelvin Ayora, Gabby Villafan, Corey Fedorowich, and Chelsea Caplinger. 2L Jailene Cruz and 3L Vincent Wang volunteered remotely.
The trip involved months of planning, as well as special training for the group—in Spanish for lawyers, and trauma-informed care.
The students spent the first half of the week working directly with immigrants in a detention center in downtown El Paso. During the second half, they helped Las Americas’ Community Migrant Advocacy Program, or CMAP.
Kokroo’s time at the detention center mostly involved conducting “client intakes,” or screening people to see whether Las Americas could take them on as clients. This meant having conversations with detainees, documenting their stories, and passing the notes on to the Las Americas attorneys. The students also attended immigration court, where they watched bond hearings and master calendar hearings, the initial hearings immigrants sometimes have upon arrival in the U.S.
When they worked with CMAP, Kokroo and the other students carried out specific projects the lawyers needed help with for current cases. Kokroo looked up case law on the statute of limitations for T and U visa claims (for victims of human trafficking and other particular crimes) for a Las Americas client; another student drafted a brief.
But it was working directly with immigrants that made the biggest impression on Kokroo—and was the most challenging. Prior to attending law school, Kokroo had worked on asylum cases as a paralegal. “In that context, I was working with clients over the course of two years and built a relationship with them, and I was able to follow their cases really closely,” she says. The situation in El Paso was different.
A new challenge
Kokroo explains the difficulty she encountered: “It was hard because we were speaking with these individuals for maybe an hour or two, and they were telling us about their stories, sharing these experiences, and then at the end, [we’d] say, ‘Thank you for sharing all of this but I don’t know if I’m going to see you again. I wish you luck; I really hope that things go well for you.’ It was something I hadn’t ever really done before.”
On her last day working with the detainees, Kokroo talked to a woman we’ll call Fatima who was seeking asylum. An anti-government activist in her home country of Nicaragua, Fatima told Kokroo about the threats made against her son and her. She was highly emotional. “It was really challenging to be there,” Kokroo recalls, “and after that conversation end it and say, ‘Thank you. I don’t know if Las Americas is going to be able to take your case, but I appreciate listening to you and I’m glad we met.’” The case was further complicated because Fatima had had a run-in with the law in the U.S. many years earlier and feared it would interfere with her asylum request.
“It was hard for me to give her any reassurance,” Kokroo says. “It was a tough position to be in.”
At the same time, Kokroo found it rewarding to work with the immigrants. “They are so grateful,” she says. “Sometimes we were the first people they were talking to about their stories. They were coming to the detention center; they hadn’t talked to anyone yet about what happened….Being that person, it’s really important. It makes you feel like you’re a part of their journey.”
An unmet need
The detainees the students worked with in El Paso represent the tip of an iceberg.
“There are so many people in the U.S. who don’t have access to quality legal aid,” says Micaela Kitchen, pro bono coordinator for ILS, who planned the trip with Kokroo’s help.
“Pro bono is a way to get students primed for being a lawyer, where there is an ethical requirement of doing pro bono hours,” Kitchen says. She notes that Drexel Kline Law students must complete 50 hours of pro bono service to graduate.
She considers the trip a success on multiple levels. “Small scale, we were getting the students to do something they were interested in—all of us are interested in immigration law and wanted to work with people who were detained,” she says.
But the trip had a broader reach as well. “I ran a lot of the Instagram stories and posts throughout the trip, and I was surprised at how much feedback we were getting from students,” she says.
“I think it’s two-fold in that way—we were providing legal aid on the ground and working with Las Americas with detained people. But apart from that, I think it is very cool, the reaction we got. More people are hearing about Las Americas; more people are interested in immigration and seeing that there is a need for legal aid in that field, among many [others] … in the U.S.”
Kitchen, who has far surpassed the required 50 pro bono hours, arrived at law school knowing she wanted to pursue public interest work. “There is such a huge unmet need among so many populations, including immigrant and refugee populations, for low-cost or free legal aid,” she says. “I feel like, as people in the legal field, it’s your duty to know that—and to know that even if you work at a big firm or somewhere that you’re not interacting with people who need lower-cost legal aid, that need is there. I think there’s somewhat of a responsibility to meet some of it.”
Both Kokroo and Kitchen hope that the trip–the first of its kind since the advent of COVID 19–turns into a recurring opportunity more students can take part in.
Coming full circle
For Kokroo, the experience in El Paso served as a reminder of her ultimate goals.
“Sometimes there’s so much pressure and there’s so much going on that you forget why you’re in law school or why you went to law school in the first place,” she says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re running on a hamster wheel, trying to get the next thing done. There is no end, is how it feels. This experience brought back a lot for me, to realize at the end of law school there’s going to be something I’m going to be doing that will make all of this worth it. Doing things like this…is kind of a good way to remind yourself of why you ended up going to school in the first place.
“Another thing I learned is that I love working with clients.” Graduation is “around the corner,” she notes, and with it a plethora of professional options, including working at a law firm or for a government or nonprofit organization. “It was good for me to have this experience to remind myself, I love doing this kind of work, kind of bringing me back to my work from when I was a paralegal. It helped me come full circle.”