Students Take Part in Alternative Spring Break Opportunities in Navajo Nation, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador

Thirteen American University Washington College of Law students took part in an Alternative Spring Break opportunity this semester, coordinated entirely by students. The Office of Public Interest recently sponsored an information session for students to share their experiences with the law school community.

“The trips were extremely impressive, both with respect to the contribution that the students were able to make and in terms of the exposure that the students had to some very pressing issues," said David Steib, director of the law school's Office of Public Interest.

Combatting Statelessness and Racial Discrimination in Dominican Republic

A group of four students worked with El Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitiana (MUDHA) in the Dominican Republic (D.R.), an organization that supports Haitian migrants.

Several generations ago, Haitians were invited to the D.R. to work on sugar plantations. These immigrants and their children were not granted citizenship, and although the D.R. constitution changed in 2010 to allow citizenship by birth, children of immigrants still cannot obtain papers, cannot afford passports or documentation, and face racism and discrimination daily.

The law students worked with MUDHA on these issues of statelessness and racial discrimination, specifically by documenting the stories of migrants who had been busted in often hostile immigration raids by authorities.

Supporting the Sovereign Work of the Navajo Nation

A team of five students spent the week in Window Rock, AZ, the seat of the sovereign Navajo Nation.

Some students were placed with the DNA People’s Legal Services, a legal aid organization that works to protect civil rights, promote tribal sovereignty, and alleviate civil legal problems for those living in poverty in the area. These students worked largely on financial issues, and explained that because Navajo Nation has a very high unemployment rate and many people live below the poverty line, much of their work with this organization involved helping victims of predatory lending. They also worked on domestic violence and school discipline cases.

Those volunteering with the Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice (Natural Resources Unit), Prosecutor’s Office, and the Supreme Court, appreciated the opportunity to experience new legal concepts. For example, Navajo fundamental law incorporates traditional Navajo values, (spiritualism, and language, peacemaking as a method of dispute resolution) and allows non-lawyers to take the Navajo bar examination and appear before tribal courts as advocates.

"The Navajo Nation trip was an incredible experience," said student Emily Paladino Splitek. "Not only did we learn a lot about the Navajo culture, legal system, and way of life, we also saw a beautiful area of the country. It was a great way to learn, give back, and enjoy some time away from law school."

The group was also able to take part in cultural experiences, including visiting Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Window Rock, viewing traditional local homes, and eating local cuisine.

Protecting and Promoting LGBTI Rights in El Salvador

Four students worked with ALDES (Legal Support for Sexual Diversity in El Salvador) to determine how the country’s newly formed transparency laws could be used by LGBTI activists to keep track of hate crimes and hold the government accountable while working to end discrimination and violence. These laws are similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), explained the students.

Throughout the week students met with such organizations as the United Nations Development Program in El Salvador and representatives of the Salvadoran government’s Department of Social Inclusion to better understand how current laws protect or fall short of protecting the LGBTI community. The students also attended the first-ever LGBTI Human Rights Conference held in El Salvador.

The group returned to the law school hoping to continue their work through various projects with the Salvadoran LGBTI legal community.

Read more about the trip in a recap by 3L Arli Christian.