Two University of Virginia law students recently played a key role in obtaining lawful immigration status for a teenager from El Salvador who was forced to smuggle drugs across the desert and into the United States.
Rising third-year law students Julianne Jaquith and Sabrina Talukder were among eight U.Va. Law students who volunteered last year with the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a nonprofit organization that assists unaccompanied immigrant children in Virginia being held in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In that role last fall, Jaquith and Talukder were assigned the case of “Carlos,” a teenager who left El Salvador at the age of 16 to enter the United States after being beaten, robbed and threatened multiple times by MS-13 gang members.
Over the course of the fall semester, the two students traveled several times to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center to interview Carlos – whose name has been changed for this story – about his ordeal.
“Our task was basically to understand his story, write a declaration – which was his version of the story – and create a timeline to be used for other legal advocates who would later pursue his case,” Talukder said. “Julianne did all of the translation, and she was an incredible translator and effectively transcribed his story from Spanish to English in a way that honored his story and struggle.”
The students learned that after leaving El Salvador, Carlos traveled by bus through Guatemala and into Mexico, where he and a friend traveled on top of a train headed toward the United States. One night on the train, he told them, masked gunmen approached, robbed them of all their possessions and kidnapped them.
“They grabbed me, blindfolded me, and tied my hands and put me in the trunk of a car,” he told them. “I think we were in the trunk for about two days. During that time, they gave us tuna to eat and water to drink. I did not eat because I was scared for my life. I was not hungry. I cried and called out for help, but no one responded. My eyes were swollen from crying. The men told us to be quiet or they would kill us.”
Carlos was taken to a house, which had bars on the windows and women inside he believed were being forced to be prostitutes. He was told that he had two options – ask his family to pay a ransom or serve as a drug mule crossing into the U.S.
“They said if we didn’t comply, they would kill our families,” he told the students. “To show that they were serious, they stabbed me in my finger. I knew my family didn’t have any money, so I knew I had no choice.”
Carlos and others were blindfolded and taken to the border, where armed members of the cartel strapped onto them large satchels of marijuana. The gunmen tied Carlos and the others together, then led them through the desert and into the United States.
The day after crossing the border, Carlos managed to escape. “I kept running and did not look back. I kept running and eventually stopped,” he said.
He turned himself in to immigration officials and shared information on his captors.
“The government identified him as an unaccompanied alien child and they transferred him to a center under the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” said Ashley Ham Pong, the supervising attorney for Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition’s detained children program.
Jaquith and Talukder prepared a detailed declaration about Carlos’ victimization, and documented his subsequent cooperation with authorities in sharing information on the traffickers. Ham Pong used the declaration as part of an application for Carlos to obtain a “T visa,” which is available for victims of human trafficking.
Carlos was released from the Shenandoah Juvenile Center in December and moved to San Francisco. This month, Carlos received a T visa, which is valid for four years and will make him eligible for a green card in three years.
“The T visa gives him lawful status,” Ham Pong said. “When I gave [Jaquith and Talukder] the assignment, I told them we were looking [to help Carlos get] a T visa. That was our goal from the outset.”
Jaquith, who has been volunteering with Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition for nearly two years, said she was thrilled about the result in Carlos’ case.
“Carlos has a bright future ahead of him here in the U.S., and I am honored that I could play a small part in helping him obtain legal status,” she said.
Carlos, she added, is a “smart and spunky kid.”
“Many of the kids at the facility are shy and quiet at first, but once we earned Carlos’ trust, he became talkative,” she said. “He looked forward to our visits, and we looked forward to visiting him. He had suffered so much, but still had such a strong spirit. He was also inquisitive – he would ask us what we were studying and why we came to interview him. Every time we would come and see him, he would make a point to ask us how our classes were going.”
Talukder also said she was happy with the way Carlos’ case turned out.
“Our client is such a wonderful person who has been through trauma and atrocities that no teenager should ever have to face, and the granting of his trafficking visa will give him the security to pursue an education or job that can give him a stable life,” she said.
Talukder, who plans to work in direct services with immigration law, specifically with human trafficking victims, said her experience volunteering with the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition has been wonderful.
“Through CAIR, I was able to have unprecedented access to youth in detention centers, which is incredibly unique for a law student to be able to do,” she said. “Not only were we able to see the conditions the client (who is a teenager) was living in (specifically their eating schedule, their dormitories, bathrooms, etc.), but we also saw firsthand how the experience of being in a detention center away from everything our client knew impacted him.”
Ham Pong praised Jaquith and Talukder’s efforts.
“They’re both really compassionate, so they build up an excellent relationship with the kids that they work with. They really care. Because they listen and they care, they’re able to document what a child is saying really well,” she said. “That’s really important from our perspective, because we’re trying to represent the children and understand their story and essentially give them a voice to apply for the relief that they deserve.”