Maryland law students fight for human rights in faraway lands

New trio of clinics expands law school's outreach to Mexico, China and Namibia

July 17, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

It had never occurred to Michelle Salomon that when she washed her hands, she used more water than some families have access to in a day.

The University of Maryland law student had never imagined a world in which constitutional education amounted to one volunteer lecturing under a shade tree to hundreds of people who had never been to school.

Salomon, an Olney resident, had long wanted to advocate for human rights. But until she spent last semester at the law school's new clinic in Namibia, she didn't know how desperate and uplifting that struggle could be.

"It transformed my life," she says.

Salomon was one of 13 Maryland law students who spent the spring working with four law professors to inaugurate clinics in three foreign lands, where the needs are great and the understanding and enforcement of laws are sparse.

In Mexico, they counseled migrant workers, who were afraid to complain about crippling fees charged by job headhunters or U.S. employers that paid below minimum wage and housed them in squalid conditions.

In China, they helped rural entrepreneurs explore their borrowing rights in a society evolving so rapidly from communism to the free market that no one knows all the rules.

In Namibia, they used an ultra-progressive constitution to fight for water and reproductive rights in desperately poor remnants of the old apartheid state.

"They came back all fired up, and most of them are still working on their projects," says Michael Millemann, the longtime director of the school's law clinics. "It's been really, really exciting, on par with anything we've done since I've been here."

With the practice of law increasingly transcending national boundaries, UM professors saw a vacuum of international opportunities in their clinical program. So they searched for countries where the program could follow its core principle of representing people who cannot afford lawyers.

Their efforts dovetailed neatly with a new international focus promoted by Phoebe Haddon, who became dean of the school last year. Haddon traveled to Namibia in March to watch students in action.

In professional practice, students will have to negotiate with people of different races, creeds and economic backgrounds, Haddon says, so what could better prepare them than helping clients in radically different legal settings?

"It's really important for us to see the commonalities in the problems we face, whether it's in Baltimore or Mississippi or overseas," she says.

The Mexican clinic, based in the northern-central town of Zacatecas, filed a case on behalf of workers who build hog pens for a U.S. company. The workers claim that they received no overtime payments and were charged exorbitant recruiting fees (as much as $2,500 in a region where the minimum wage is $5 a day).

Students heard from other workers who earned $2 an hour from U.S. companies, were paid for eight hours when they worked 24 straight, were exposed to dangerous pesticides and were forced to sleep outside.

Rising third-year student Carlos Guevara, a Mexican native from San Antonio, says the clinic reshaped his understanding of his home country. He was moved by the dignity of workers struggling to make better lives for their families and by the desperation he sensed when a cold snap wiped out banana, coffee and orange crops. He vividly recalls a session with carnival workers in Vera Cruz, where no one seemed willing to talk with the law students.

"We thought we were going nowhere fast," Guevara says. "But then this man, a tile layer, looked around the room and said, 'You all may have had a rosy experience, but for me, it was atrocious.' There was a snowball effect after that and just to see the empowerment caused by that one man speaking up, it was amazing."

In China, students found that the government's micro-credit programs, designed to combat rural poverty, often benefited well-established businesses rather than the farmer who wanted to buy more pigs or the small entrepreneur who wanted a truck to transport cattle.

Most potential borrowers didn't know enough about their rights to question the system, says rising third-year student Eric Kunimoto of Ellicott City.

Nonetheless, he came away hopeful about China's future. "It was inspiring, being on the ground there and seeing people excited about their opportunities," he says. "To see people happy about what we were bringing is not an experience you would normally get as a law student."

Barbara Olshansky had worked in Namibia as a human rights lawyer for several years before joining the Maryland law faculty this year. She fell in love with the optimism of a country that hoped to implement one of the world's most progressive constitutions less than two decades after its apartheid system fell.

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