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Harvard Law Touts Groundbreaking Catholic Charities Project

Posted on May 13, 2015 by Alice Kenny  |  Share


Credit: Mark Bonifacio

By Kim Ashton Harvard Law Today

When Vladimir Gongora, a deaf teenager who fled El Salvador, first met with Brett Stark ’12 two years ago in the Immigrant and Refugee Services Division at Catholic Charities in New York, the two had to draw pictures to communicate. Vladimir had never been taught to write or use sign language, and he needed Stark to help him win the legal right to stay in the United States.

Stark found him a special interpreter, one versed in communicating with hearing-impaired people without formal language skills. He then built a successful asylum case for the teenager on the grounds that Salvadoran law forbade people with serious disabilities from marrying or even acquiring a passport.

This was part of the inspiration for Terra Firma, a project co-founded by Stark, with Dr. Alan Shapiro and Dr. Cristina Muniz De la Pena, which offers legal and health services to unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed into the U.S.

Initially started with funding from an Equal Justice Works fellowship, Terra Firma is now supported by Catholic Charities, Montefiore Medical Center, and the Children’s Health Fund, and more sources of private and public funding may become available as the issue of unaccompanied immigrant children attracts more national attention.

Terra Firma provides a panoply of services to young people like Vladimir, to address the wide range of issues that often accompany their cases. This holistic approach not only helps to meet children’s immediate needs; it helps Stark in the courtroom.

Reports by Terra Firma doctors and mental health professionals often include evidence that children were persecuted and even faced life-threatening dangers in their home countries. In addition, medical and mental health providers can help to stabilize children, preparing them to assist and testify in their own cases.

Terra Firma has worked with around 100 children so far, and it is expecting to see twice as many over the next year. Clients in immigration cases, including children, do not have the legal right to publicly funded immigration lawyers, so the demand is great.

Read the full story in Harvard Law Today.