Mary Holper
Boston College Law School
EJA Fellowship Recipient, Summer 2002
Staff Attorney, Ruby Slippers Project

Detained 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 disorderly.

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 defenders.

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 leave behind.

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