Ruthie Epstein lectures law students on immigrants' asylum rights

Immigrants seeking asylum in the United States often spend years in immigrant detention facilities with living conditions similar to prisons.

Guest lecturer Ruthie Epstein encouraged a group of about 70 UNC law students to undertake these immigrants’ cases pro bono during a lecture on immigration policy Wednesday.

Epstein, a researcher and advocate for Human Rights First, spoke about the organization’s history and recent reforms in the quality of immigration detention centers.

Epstein emphasized that pro bono services provide the foundation of Human Rights First.

“You can do work assisting people in need,” she said. “It’s becoming more culturally required for the private firms to say they care about pro bono work.”

Deborah Weissman, a faculty member of the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic and professor of law, said the law school’s students are likely to engage in public service.

“The students in this law school are very public service-minded. I think that desire to volunteer is absolutely there from the first day they walk into the building.”

Board of Trustees member Alston Gardner, who is also on the board of directors of Human Rights First, said guest lectures are an important complement to students’ academic courses.

“They are getting advice from practitioners and advocates who are dealing with day-to-day issues,” he said.

Epstein primarily provides counsel and resources for refugees seeking asylum in the United States, she said.

“It’s a sad story of people who have suffered tremendous persecution,” she said.

In 2010, the U.S. granted asylum to 21,000 people, Epstein said.

“Immigration detention has exploded in the past 15 years,” she said.

Epstein recently said that the media has put an emphasis on reporting problems with immigration detention centers.

“The issue is a lack of oversight on the accountability of facilities,” she said.

She recently released a report sponsored by Human Rights First on the progress of the Obama Administration’s public commitments to reform immigration detention centers.

Epstein said she is encouraged by efforts of the administration to transform the entire model of immigrant detention systems away from a correctional model, which places asylum seekers in prison rather than alternate detention options.

“What we found in this report is that the U.S. government has made some steps forward in detention centers,” she said.

But a significant number of asylum seekers continue to be held in prison, she said, adding that half of immigrant detention beds are found in prisons.

Weissman said Epstein’s lecture hit on some important points about citizen and non-citizen treatment.

“There is a tremendous upsurge in terms of the interest in how we treat non-citizens,” Weissman said. “There’s also an upsurge in how the U.S. implements human rights at home.

The lecture was hosted by the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic at the School of Law, the Immigration Law Association and the International and Comparative Law Organization.

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