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U of I students help reunite family

Posted at 8:29 PM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 09:37:17-05

For her protection, the asylum seeker in this story will be referred to as FNC.

Thanks to students at the University of Idaho, a woman from Guatemala seeking refuge in the United States was able to reunite with her children after years of separation.

"One of our priorities from the start was to get her out of detention. She had been in detention for about a year and a half. She had been separated from her family for that entire time. And to all of us, that seemed like a grave injustice," Geoff Heeren, Director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Idaho, said.

After an organization called Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, people being held in ICE detentions must be considered for release if they have high COVID-19 risk factors.

After a judge repeatedly denied bond to FNC, the team decided to use COVID-19 risk factors to get her out of ICE detention.

"And it was in part to COVID-19 risk factors, but it was also the fact that she is not somebody who is a flight risk or a danger to the community. This is a mother who is fleeing persecution," Heeren said.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals appointed the team to the case in April. Since then, students have been able to assist with different parts of the process. Some helped write a briefing for the court case, and others helped with her release from ICE detention.

"I had to spend a considerable amount of time just understanding what was going on in the first place. Then on top of that, craft an argument for the court," Anthony Lee, University of Idaho student, said.

FNC entered the U.S. in May 2019 seeking refuge. She has been in ICE detention and separated from her family for most of that time but was able to file an appeal to the second-highest court in the nation.

"That's not an easy thing to do. But it was so important to her to be in this country and be safe from people who are targeting her in Guatemala, where her life was very much at risk," Heeren said.

Since their initial involvement in the case back in April, some of the students have kept in contact with FNC daily, so when ICE released her from detention, they say it was an emotional moment. FNC referred to it as a miracle.

"I was one of the first people that she called when she got released. We worked with an organization that picked her up and took her to the hotel. I met her there and made sure I was able to debrief her," Rosa Cabrera Thompson, University of Idaho student, said.

The next part of the process involves Lee representing FNC in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It's been a great honor to represent FNC in this case. A case that has taken a lot of resources, and pretty much all the students in the clinic have participated in some way in the case," Heeren said.