Kathryn Shepherd '09 Fights for Women and Children Seeking Asylum
Travel about 80 miles southwest from San Antonio by way of Interstate 35 and you’ll get to the small city of Dilley, the self-proclaimed watermelon capital of Texas and the site of the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC), the largest family immigrant detention center in the United States.
The facility, one of three family detention centers in the country, houses hundreds of mothers and their minor children most whom have made the perilous journey to the United States from Central America’s Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Placed in a fast-track deportation process called “expedited removal,” nearly all are seeking asylum to escape pervasive gang violence and domestic abuse in their home countries.
Between 2015 and 2016 alone, over 180,000 children and families were apprehended at southern U.S. border crossings. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” says Kathryn (Katie) Shepherd, a legal fellow at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council. For almost 10 years, the Texas native has worked to advance and protect the rights of noncitizens seeking humanitarian relief in the United States.
It’s a career path that unfolded right after college, when Shepherd spent a year volunteering at the Texas Civil Rights Project, helping undocumented women to prepare self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act. “It was a rewarding experience that solidified my desire to go to law school and to practice immigration law,” she says. At St. John’s Law, Shepherd participated in the Law School’s Refugee and Immigrant Rights Litigation Clinic, run in partnership with Catholic Charities, and founded a chapter of Amnesty International.
Returning to Texas soon after her Law School graduation, Shepherd worked as an associate in private practice and then started her own firm to focus exclusively on asylum cases. “While in private practice, I started volunteering with the CARA Pro Bono Project in Dilley, which brings volunteers from across the country to STFRC and the other family detention centers to provide detained mothers and children with pro bono representation,” Shepherd shares.
In 2015, Shepherd became the managing attorney of the CARA Pro Bono Project, overseeing a team of lawyers, advocates, and volunteers. “In Dilley, we work around the clock knowing that every deportation we stop, every mother and child we pull off a plane, is a life saved,” she says. “It’s incredibly high stakes lawyering. For these detainees, having competent representation from the start of the asylum process can literally mean the difference between life or death.”
The following year, Shepherd was tapped for a one-year fellowship at the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., where she worked on legal advocacy and policy related to asylum-seeking women and children. “The fellowship allowed me to continue advocating for this most vulnerable group at the national level,” she says. “I helped to build litigation to protect due process rights for noncitizens and to preserve this country's proud legacy of offering humanitarian aid to those in need.”
In July, Shepherd and her American Immigration Council colleagues joined with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Latham & Watkins LLP to file a class action lawsuit challenging the Customs and Border Protection’s practice of turning away asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry along the Mexico-United States border. “The suit was the culmination of many months of hard work, and one of the primary focuses of my fellowship year,” Shepherd says. “It was so gratifying to be part of this concerted effort to right a wrong.”
Shepherd is continuing her vital work on behalf of detained noncitizens in her new role as National Advocacy Counsel for the American Immigration Council. “When people ask me why I became an immigration attorney, I tell them it's because I don't like bullies,” she says. “Among other major obstacles, asylum seekers are forced to overcome language barriers, health issues, and terrible trauma in making their case to immigration officials and the courts. The importance of having access to counsel every step of the way can't be overstated. There are boundless opportunities right now for attorneys to gain hands-on experience in the field, and I can't emphasize enough the value of working directly with these clients. It’s a life-changing experience.”
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of St. John's Law magazine.