Following two court victories, the Harvard Immigration Project’s (HIP) Bond Hearing Project continues its campaign to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants seeking release from immigration custody.

Some immigrants in detention facilities are eligible for release and may be granted bond by a judge, though many immigration detainees are unable to afford legal representation. Under the direction of supervising attorney Phil Torrey, the Bond Hearing Project typically teams four to five law students to provide free representation. Led by Bond Hearing Project co-directors Tanika Vigil ’14 and Carol Wang ’13, HLS students represented immigrant clients who were detained at Suffolk County House of Correction.

In December, the Bond Hearing Project represented a middle-aged man from Guatemala who had been caught in a hotel immigration raid in New Hampshire. The client, who had fled Guatemala after being shot through the neck and witnessing the murder of his nephew, was working long hours in the United States to send money home to his ill father. With no prior criminal record, the client was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during their search for a different individual.

The student team, led by Brett Heeger ’14, oralist, included team members Wang, Vigil, and Marie Nelson ’14. After gathering evidence directly from the client and various community members, the team’s argument succeeded and the client was able to post bond, which was raised by his friends and fellow church members.

In an earlier case, the Bond Hearing Project represented a client who was an immigrant from El Salvador arrested in Portland, Maine on criminal trespass charges; the client was sent to the immigration detention center at the Suffolk County House of Correction in mid-August. The client was working at the docks processing lobster, and living in a shelter while sending most of his earnings home to support his family.

After first contact, the Harvard Law School team, which included Kendall Bass ’14, Betsey Boutelle ’14, Nelson, Vigil and Wang, had two weeks to gather proof that their client was not a danger to the community, a flight risk, or a threat to national security. The team’s supervising attorney, Phil Torrey, said, “It was a total blitz to try to find evidence to get [him] bond.”

On the day of the hearing, after considering the collected police reports, docket sheets, and oral arguments from Wang, the team’s representative, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney, the judge agreed to set a bond amount, which allowed their client to be released from detention.

Bond Hearing Project co-directors Vigil and Wang said the student team worked very well together. Vigil said the court victory was “a reflection of how persistent we’ve been, and how committed we were.” The investigative effort put forth by the team was its key to success, Wang said, as they were very well prepared at the hearing and able to successfully answer questions from the judge and respond to counter-arguments from the ICE attorney.

Wang said a successful bond hearing is extremely valuable to immigrant detainees because it frees them from detention, which allows them more time to properly develop their claims for immigration protection within the United States.

According to Vigil, the representation offered by the Bond Hearing Project seeks to push back against “a conceptualization of immigrant detainees as a criminal portion of our population who deserve to be locked up without the possibility of bond.”

The work of the Bond Hearing Project is important not only to the immigrant community, but also to the HLS students involved.

“Immigration law cuts across many levels of the legal world, and having a very active and productive community of people who are interested and excited in working in this field [gives us] the opportunity to be useful both to Boston and the law school community,” Heeger said.

According to Torrey, the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP) and other student practice organizations (known as SPOs) are great opportunities for students to experience hands-on casework and to supplement the work of existing HLS clinics. Such SPOs allow first-year students, who are not yet eligible for enrollment in a clinic, to begin learning valuable legal skills, such as interviewing a client and presenting an argument in court. These skills can then be developed in greater depth when students take advantage of the myriad clinical opportunities at HLS following their first year.

Vigil added that the Bond Hearing Project and other HIP projects are valuable because they ground the law school experience: “You put in a lot, but you get so much more out of it in terms of finding your motivation and direction, and getting back to why we decided to come to law school in the first place.”

In addition to hosting the Bond Hearing Project, HIP provides community outreach, education and advocacy, and pro bono legal representation to immigrants through three other main projects: Community Outreach and Training, Immigration Services and Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). HIP also hosts a number of events for members throughout the school year including speakers, career and academic advising, and direct action campaigns.

This post is excerpted from an article by Harvard College students Joanne Wong and Victoria Fydrych, which originally appeared on the Harvard Immigration & Refugee Clinic blog on March 27, 2013.