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Legal Issues Surrounding Central American Refugees in the United States

(160 reviews)

Produced on December 11, 2017

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Course Information

Time 95 minutes
Difficulty Intermediate

Course Description

On Human Rights Day, join attorneys Ernie Collette, Claire R. Thomas, Carlos A. Valenzuela, and advocate Marilyn E. Alvarado to address what is called the “Other Refugee Crisis” - one that is happening much closer to home. The panel will discuss the reasons behind migration of Central American women and children and the history of immigration detention in the U.S. Discussion points include:

  • a federal judge’s order for the release of refugee mothers and children from detention on multiple occasions (though these asylum-seekers are still being detained);

  • the for-profit detention industry;

  • the families (often young women and their children) that continue to be housed in remote locations in Texas and Pennsylvania, denied medical care, and left without counsel to argue their release from detention and their right to seek asylum in the U.S.;

  • the impact of trauma on immigrants, particularly those in detention; and

  • the legal elements involved in credible and reasonable fear determinations as the first step to an asylum case and release from immigration detention.

As there is no appointed counsel in immigration deportation (removal) proceedings, join this panel to learn what you can do to help make a difference in this ongoing denial of the human rights of women and children seeking safety in the U.S.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Discuss the history of immigration detention and family detention in the United States
  2. Recognize the reasons behind the immigration of Central American families
  3. Appreciate how trauma impacts the ability of these asylum-seekers to articulate their claims for immigration relief
  4. Identify various legal issues surrounding these detainees
  5. Address Credible and Reasonable Fear Interviews and their components
  6. Discover what you can do to help vulnerable immigrant children and family groups facing removal from the United States

Credit Information

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Claire R. Thomas


Claire R. Thomas is an attorney, advocate, and adjunct professor interested in migration, statelessness, human rights, and empowerment for women and girls facing poverty and gender-based violence. She graduated from the University of Chicago and also studied at the Université de Paris X, Nanterre. She holds a graduate degree from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, a law degree from New York Law School, and was a Visiting Scholar at The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility. She is an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School, where she directs the Asylum Clinic, a year-long immigration law clinic for adults and children facing removal from the United States, as well as an introductory immigration law course. In addition, Ms. Thomas provides legal assistance for naturalization applicants through bi-monthly immigration clinics with CUNY Citizenship Now! and volunteers assisting refugee mothers and children with the CARA Pro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas.

Previously, Ms. Thomas served as Director of Training at Safe Passage Project, a non-profit housed at New York Law School, in which she mentored pro bono attorneys representing immigrant children; supervised law students, fellows and staff; coordinated a monthly Juvenile Docket at the New York Immigration Court; planned, organized and conducted trainings for over 5,000 interested persons; and engaged in advocacy efforts with other non-profit organizations as well as city, state, and federal agencies. Before, she advocated for the rights of African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrants as a legal intern, then staff attorney at African Services Committee, a Harlem-based non-profit that assists persons living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, Ms. Thomas provided pro bono representation for survivors of gender-based violence, including minors, in immigration proceedings. Ms. Thomas also directed “Projet Aimée,” African Services Committee’s women’s empowerment group for survivors of gender-based violence, funded by a Community Action Grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Ms. Thomas is a member of the Immigration & Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and is the current co-chair of the Benefits and Immigration subcommittee. Her writings have appeared in various law journals and other publications. She was an Opinion Columnist for Anthropology News, a publication of the American Anthropological Associations. She speaks French fluently and is learning Spanish.

Ernie Collette

Mobilization For Justice

Ernie Collette is a Staff Attorney in the Government Benefits Project at Mobilization for Justice. While working at several non-profit organizations in the past decade, has represented clients in a range of matters, including Public Assistance, SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security benefits. He also implemented the Immigration Law Project at Mobilization for Justice and currently represents families and individuals in humanitarian-based claims for immigration relief. He has provided numerous trainings to clients and staff at nonprofit organizations, law schools, and to Immigration Judges and Asylum officers on Immigrant Eligibility for Public Benefits and is extremely committed to improving the quality of life of marginalized individuals and families through litigation and policy work. He is a graduate of Seattle University School of Law and Gonzaga University.

Carlos Valenzuela

Solo Practitioner

Carlos A. Valenzuela was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is an immigration attorney who practices law in New York City and Long Island and was previously an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow with the Safe Passage Project. Mr. Valenzuela currently has his own immigration practice and is a part time Staff Attorney with CUNY Citizenship Now through their City Council Member Program. Mr. Valenzuela has dedicated himself to working with vulnerable immigrant populations, focusing on helping immigrant youth from Central America access legal relief from deportation.

In December 2016, Mr. Valenzuela, along with his colleagues, volunteered with the CARA Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Residential Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. During his time there, Mr. Valenzuela mostly assisted detained women and children prepare for credible fear interviews, which if passed, resulted in the release of the women and children from detention. Mr. Valenzuela considers this experience to be life-changing and it inspired him to continue his advocacy for immigrant rights.

Marilyn Alvarado

Safe Passage Project

Marilyn E. Alvarado is the daughter of a Salvadoran mother and a Honduran father. She is a first generation college graduate from CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has earned a degree in Forensic Psychology and an honors minor in Latin American studies and Human Services. During her time in college, she became a recipient of the Pinkerton Fellowship and worked with court-involved youth throughout New York City. In her senior year, she was selected for the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program that allowed her to take courses alongside incarcerated students providing her with an insight on the U.S. criminal justice system and education.

Her work with Safe Passage Project began as a U-LAMPER (Unaccompanied Latin American Minors Project), which led to her current position as a paralegal. In December 2016, she traveled 80 miles southwest of San Antonio to the small town of Dilley, Texas, to volunteer at the South Texas Residential Facility; a detention center that houses immigrant mothers and children. There she and other colleagues provided legal assistance and bore witness to the stories of Central American women and children who were victims of domestic violence, child abuse, extreme poverty, and state neglect, in their home countries. In May 2017, she was accepted as a Humanity in Action Fellow and spent time in Poland and Germany to develop her understanding of human rights outside of the United States. She is currently a Beyond the Bars Fellow with the Center for Justice at Columbia University. There she explores and deepens her understanding of the intersections and effects of mass incarceration by collaborating with activists, scholars, and academics to develop the annual Beyond the Bars Conference. Her experiences while working with both the immigration and justice system have inspired her to pursue law school.


Alan G.

excellent program

Elizabeth K.

Eye opening

Richard C.

Wonderful program. And "thank you" to the presenters, for the work you are doing.

Kerry F.

This was a very interesting class from a current events standpoint.

Kiman L.

Good panel.

Melody E.

Puts a whole new spin on things

Joe P.


Lourna M.


Sarah B.

Really enjoyed this cle

Cecil F.

excellent course,lecturers and course materials.

Mohammed Z.

enjoyed the discussion

Corey E.

Thank you

Alisha W.

Very informative course!

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