UCLA students learn of immigrants' need of legal representation at an event sponsored by the non-profit Active Voice, the UCLA International Institute, & the UCLA School of Law
What does the struggle of a young Afghan woman to win asylum in the United States matter when it simply the plot of a movie? The answer to that question was provided on January 15 at an event — sponsored by the non-profit organization Active Voice, the UCLA International Institute, and the UCLA School of Law — that combined the screening of the Court TV film Chasing Freedom and a panel discussion and networking session with community activists.
Chasing Freedom tells the story of Meena, a 26-year-old Afghan woman (portrayed by Layla Alizada), who is persecuted by the Taliban for running an underground school for girls, and Libby Brock, an ambitious New York corporate lawyer (played by Juliette Lewis) who reluctantly agrees to represent Meena, pro bono, when the woman is detained as she enters the United States seeking asylum. The movie was inspired by a real asylum case handled by attorneys affiliated with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a non-profit organization founded in 1978 to “create a secure and humane world by advancing justice, human dignity, and respect for the rule of law.”
The relevance of the movie is that in real life countless asylum seekers face the same sort of frightening, dehumanizing ordeal endured by Meena as she, guided by her attorney, navigated the U.S. immigration system. This was the main message conveyed by the panel discussion, moderated by Neils Franzen, professor of law at USC and adjunct professor of law at UCLA, which followed the screening. On the panel were representatives of several local organizations active in promoting immigrant rights and human rights, including Alicia Molina, director of the Legal Department, International Institute of LA; Ana Avila, legal director of EL Rescate; Greg Simons, director of immigration and citizenship at CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles); and Allison Wannamaker, managing detention attorney of CLINIC (Catholic Legal Immigration Network).
What the panel discussion accomplished, in essence was — in the words of Ellen Schneider, executive director of Active Voice — “to localize” the movie by bringing into focus what is happening in the Los Angeles area in the context of human rights issues.
The thoughtfulness and fervor of the questions from the audience, which mostly consisted of law students, made it clear that the film and the panel discussion had triggered strong emotions. The questioners were obviously enthusiastic about meeting face-to-face with local activists and hearing about the desperate need of asylum seekers and other immigrants for legal assistance. More than that, many in attendance were inspired to get involved. At the event, Active Voice distributed a survey, which had a remarkably high return rate of 80 percent. But the greatest evidence of involvement came at the end of the event, when members of the audience linked up with community activists to begin exploring opportunities for putting into action the expertise and enthusiasm of UCLA's law students in helping secure fair, just, and humane treatment of immigrants. The words of one student voiced the commitment that seemed to grip many: “I came to this country five years ago. Now I want to find out what I can do help those who need it.”