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GRACE, Idaho — Samanta Martinez-Villarreal, an East Idaho native and law student at George Mason University, has helped reunite families through her work on immigration cases with a Virgina-based nonprofit legal aid organization.

After completing internships in legal ethics and federal employment law at GMU, Martinez-Villarreal decided to try out immigration law this year. In her work with Legal Aid Justice Center, she helped a man get out of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center near Virginia.

“The process of how people become U.S. citizens, it is very interesting to me and complicated,” Martinez-Villarreal said.

She is among the George Mason law students who are part of a partnership between the university and Legal Aid Justice Center. It is the first year of the partnership, which entails the center’s staff teaching a seminar to students and then students working on immigration cases with a supervising attorney.

Martinez-Villarreal is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who ended up in Grace, Idaho. Her parents became citizens when she was in high school. Martinez-Villarreal has studied law at George Mason since 2017 and is set to graduate in May.

Through Legal Aid Justice Center, Martinez-Villarreal worked on a case with a partner that involved an undocumented man who was “picked up by ICE on his way to work,” she said.

She said the man was taken to an ICE detention center three hours away from Fairfax, Virginia. Martinez-Villarreal said she and her partner argued to get him out of the detention center on bond.

“He got picked up on criminal charge, but it was a misunderstanding, a language problem,” Martinez-Villarreal said. She didn’t want to disclose too much information about the man, whose status is still up in the air.

She added that “one of the most shocking things was mandatory minimum to get out of the detention center is $1,500.”

Martinez-Villarreal also said she and her partner helped one woman with an application to claim asylum in the United States.

She said she was surprised by how complicated the application was, and she believed it would be almost impossible for a person to fill it out without a lawyer.

“We just go to class, we discuss theory, ‘this is the black letter rule and these are the boundaries,’ but it is really different to see it in practice because these are people’s lives,” she said. “And with immigration law changing so quickly, their lives are often up in the air.”

Becky Wolozin, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, said the program with GMU students “is an experience that teaches someone how to be a lawyer. It combines immigration law and civil rights around immigration law with the practice of working with clients and taking their stories and translating them to what the court needs and figuring out how their stories meet requirements and don’t meet the requirements of immigration release.”

Wolozin said most of the cases the students are working on make life-changing differences in people’s lives.

“Samanta’s case meant that a client got out of detention and got to go back and live with his family,” Wolozin said. “That is a life-changing difference.”

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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