4/25/2013 Peter Durantine

From Legal Help to Sports Training, F&M Students Rise to the Challenge

If a pair of big ideas from three Franklin & Marshall College students is realized, pro bono lawyers will find it easier to represent immigration clients seeking asylum, and young athletes in Guatemala City, Guatemala, will get a top-of-the-line athletic facility in which to train.

During the 2013 Franklin Innovative Challenge, held April 12 in the Patricia E Harris Center for Business, Government and Public Policy, Akbar Hossain '13 and Mark Harmon-Vaught '15 won the sustainability/technological/social entrepreneurship category for "The AID Project: Accessible Immigration Database," and Mauricio Sedano '14 won the open category for "Top," a proposed athletic facility for Guatemalan student athletes.

The AID Project is already under way. Top is still developing, though Sedano said he intends to pursue it after he graduates in May 2014.

  • Mark Harmon-Vaught '15 and Akbar Hossain '13 present their idea for a comprehensive immigration database during Franklin & Marshall College's Franklin Innovation Challenge April 12. Six teams out of 21 were selected to present to panels of alumni and parent judges during the event, which was held in the  Patricia E Harris Center for Business, Government and Public Policy. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

A System to Help the Helpers

As part of the "Human Rights/Human Wrongs" course at Franklin & Marshall, Hossain, a 2012 Harry S. Truman Scholarship recipient, collaborated with classmates on a research-intensive, 400-page report in his junior year.

Known as an evidentiary packet, the report helped convince an immigration judge to grant a Sudanese man refuge in the United States to escape persecution. It also inspired Hossain with an idea: a central database of packets compiled by law schools and law firms.

Immigration courts require evidentiary packets in deciding asylum-seeker cases. Painstakingly compiled, they include medical reports -- whether the asylum seeker had suffered injuries or rape -- expert witness testimony on the persecution, and a report on whether the country engages in persecution.

Time to compile a packet is lengthy, as are the packets, which range from 150 to 600 pages. It's a workload that deters attorneys from pro-bono cases, Hossain said, noting that 60 percent of asylum seekers have no legal representation.

"Many pro-bono attorneys are hesitant to take these cases because of the evidentiary packet burden," said Hossain, a government major with a pre-law focus. "A 400-page report took us an entire semester to compile."

To relieve attorneys of the burden of compiling a key part of the evidentiary packet -- the condition of the country -- and to offer case studies, Hossain decided a solution would be a national database of packets. It would serve as a central repository for lawyers to review packets that may pertain to their case and, if a country's human rights condition has not changed, use a packet's condition-of-country report, if it meets their needs.

Attorneys representing other Sudanese immigrants seeking asylum could use Hossain's report on Sudan, for example. However, no confidential information would be shared in the database.

The project's website was developed by Harmon-Vaught, who enlisted the help of a friend from Stanford University.

"Our goal is to make it easier and more efficient for attorneys," said Harmon-Vaught, a government major who, like Hossain, is on a pre-law track.

The database will serve as a research tool and a source of hard evidence for attorneys to submit to immigration court for asylum claims, requests for protection under the United Nation's Convention against Torture, and other claims, according to the website.

While variants of this idea have been tried, The AID Project offers what other databases did not, said Professor of Government Susan Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and director of the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement.

"It's a summary of these reports, which is key here in asylum cases," said Dicklitch, who teaches the "Human Rights/Human Wrongs" course.

Hossain and Harmon-Vaught said they believe schools and attorneys would recognize the database's mutual benefit and willingly submit their evidentiary packets. A fee structure would charge immigration pro-bono lawyers less than the paid counsel.

Building Better Students, Athletes

Sedano's project, Top, would provide a place for eager student athletes of modest means to train with professional coaches in a high-quality facility.

As a high school student in his hometown of Guatemala City, Sedano said he was fortunate to have access to coaches and sports facilities that helped him train as a squash player, perfect his skills and realize his potential.

  • Mauricio Sedano '14 (l) and his mentor, Mark Kuhn '85, celebrate Sedano's first-place showing in the open category of the Franklin Innovation Challenge. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Kessler)

There were other students, though, who were not as economically fortunate, and public schools could not offer the caliber of coaching and equipment necessary for these young athletes to reach their potential.

"I saw so many of my friends withdraw from the athletic field because they lacked good guidance," Sedano said.

Top is a proposed eight-squash court complex that Sedano said would be the largest such facility in Latin America. Currently, the largest in the continent has only five courts. It would include a health-conscious restaurant and classrooms with tutors. In the mornings when students are not scheduled to train, Top would serve as a gym.

Sedano, a business, organizations and society major, said the classrooms would serve two purposes: to provide extra instruction from tutors for students who believe they need it, and to allow students to complete school assignments before going home.

Students would attend Top in the afternoon and finish just before Guatemala City's rush hour, typically fraught with long delays. Students' time is better used studying until rush hour ends, Sedano said.

Sedano said he would seek investors to build the facility, but the revenue to maintain it would be collected from fees for membership and training camps, rent from the restaurant, and some government subsidies.

Founded three years ago, the Franklin Innovation Challenge fosters innovation and entrepreneurship at F&M, using competition to identify interested and qualified students.

Hossain, Harmon-Vaught and Sedano were two of 21 teams from every class year, representing more than 10 majors, each mentored by an F&M alumnus/alumna or parent.

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