Boston College Law School
EJA Fellowship Recipient, Summer 2002
Staff Attorney, Ruby Slippers Project
immigrants are “this absolutely, totally
downtrodden population that everyone seems
to turn away from.”
When the doors to justice all are shut, Mary Holper does
her best to open them again.
As an attorney with the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights
(CAIR) Coalition, Holper worked with immigrants detained
in American jails. When an illegal or non-permanent immigrant
commits a crime, whether petty or serious, they’re
kept in regional county jails, sometimes for years,
while authorities figure out what to do with them.
Detainees’ legal situations are often extremely complicated;
depending on their crime and immigration status,
they may be deported or set free. Some are ordered
deported, but are stateless or denied access by their country.
So they remain in limbo.
Helping detainees is not a popular cause, Holper
readily admits. Detained immigrants are “this absolutely,
totally downtrodden population that everyone seems
to turn away from.”
Holper says the “general presumption out on the street
is these are criminal aliens, they’ve done something
wrong, we don’t want them out on the streets.” That’s
not always the case, however. An immigrant, even
one here on a student visa or green card, may be
deported for something as minor as shoplifting or being
Detainees must rely on their friends and family members
to advocate for them. Once a month, Holper and her colleagues
visited Virginia jails where detainees were being held,
often driving three or more hours to visit those kept in
rural jails. She met with detained immigrants and explained
their rights and avenues of relief.
Holper also reviewed past cases and trained public
defenders on how to avoid serious immigration consequences
for minor crimes. A one-year sentence for petty larceny
may mean mandatory deportation, for instance. She also
created a chart of criminal statutes in Virginia and the
potential effects on immigrants, as a reference for public
Holper decided to work in immigrants’ rights after
studying abroad in France her junior year of college. She
shared a dorm with a group of North African students and
saw firsthand the prejudice and scorn they endured. “So
it just felt very personal,” she says. After graduating,
Holper learned Spanish and tutored migrant workers.
She also taught English to rural Costa Ricans for
a year and volunteered with the Midwest Immigrants Human
Rights Center in Chicago.
Upon her return, she enrolled at Boston College.
Equal Justice America awarded her a fellowship her second
summer to work at Ayuda Inc., a Washington, D.C. nonprofit
that offers immigrants direct legal representation.
Using her Spanish and French, Holper helped clients
fill out complex forms for relief and benefits and wrote
supporting documentation for asylum applications. She also
represented asylum seekers in court.
One client, a doctor from Togo, had been imprisoned
for human rights work in her own country. The story
was so compelling, Holper says, that “she was granted
asylum that day in court.”
UPDATE: As of September 2006, Mary Holper is working with
the Ruby Slippers Project, a pilot program begun by the
Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston
College, together with the Boston College Law School Immigration
and Asylum Project (BCIAP). The program aims to counsel,
support, and represent people who have been deported from
the United States, as well as the families they had to
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