A Student’s Reflection: Sanctuary in the Rio Grande

The following is a student’s reflection of her Winter term Independent Clinical project at the Refugio del Rio Grande in San Benito, TX. Her project was partially funded by HLS’s Summer Public Interest Fund (SPIF) program.

By Priya Patel ’13

I had heard a lot about Lisa Brodyaga before I went down to San Benito, Texas to work with her over Winter Term. A legend and a mystery in the field of immigration law, she is widely revered for having created Refugio del Rio Grande, a sanctuary for refugees fleeing persecution in Guatemala and El Salvador. While Lisa and other lawyers in the Rio Grande Valley fought to win asylum for these refugees, the refugees worked and lived off of the land, milking cows and growing food.

Lisa still lives and works out of Refugio del Rio Grande, located on a small plot of land she owns between San Benito and Harlingen, Texas. The land is home to Lisa, her partner, an incredibly protective Belgian Shepherd named Biko, a fleet of cattle, a flock of chickens, a pair of horses, and Jorge, the emu. For my Winter term Independent Clinical project in January 2013, I was fortunate enough to join their ranks. Lisa very kindly opened up her home to me, allowing me to stay in a spare bedroom and work out of an office adjacent to hers. During the work-day (which Lisa constantly reminded me was not set in stone as nine to five), I took breaks to walk with Jorge along the land, visit the cows, plant trees with Lisa, and feed the chickens.

Lisa is incredibly warm and welcoming, and takes great joy in mentoring aspiring lawyers. She shared her home, food, personal space and even personal life with me. She invited me to dinners with her friends and breakfasts with her colleagues. She told me her war stories – the innovative ways in which she and other lawyers sought asylum for refugees – as well as her personal stories, like the time she took a leave from college to join a Moscow circus.

Lisa’s caseload has evolved to meet the Valley’s needs. She still takes on individual clients and represents them in their applications for protection; she also brings class action suits to thwart government misconduct and abuse towards immigrants. During my internship, I assisted Lisa and other immigration attorneys with a class action suit that brought constitutional and tort damages claims against U.S. Customs and Border Protection for disturbingly rampant misconduct. I drafted a brief to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a woman whose passport application was denied by the U.S. State Department, despite overwhelming evidence that she was a U.S. citizen. I helped Lisa with several applications for undocumented youths under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and observed her hearings in immigration court and federal court. I also met other immigration lawyers in the Valley, all of whom were eager to share their own stories, relaying the ubiquitous challenges immigrant communities near the border face on a daily basis.

On my last morning at Refugio, Lisa and I searched through a patch of underbrush for a pregnant cow that had been missing from the herd. Quietly, Lisa led me to a clearing, where the heifer watched as her newly born calf learned to make use of its legs. I asked if the calf had been named yet. When Lisa said it didn’t yet have a name, I half-jokingly suggested my own name.

“Would you mind?” She asked me, with a serious look on her face.

On that last morning, I was feeling a bit guilty about how little I had done for Lisa when she had taught me so much. She had shown me what it is like to dedicate oneself to a cause and to use the law to fight injustice and help people. In return, I simply performed some legal work, and devoured all of her cookies and cheese. When she offered to name the calf after me, I was more than happy to give her something that could have a lasting impact, too – even if it was just my name.

For more information about her experiences with Refugio del Rio Grande, contact Priya Patel at p.arvind.p@gmail.com.