William & Mary Law places a big focus on creating citizen lawyers, or lawyers who use their unique legal skills to make their communities better and safer. Though they have been educated in a culture far away from this idea, as proposed by Thomas Jefferson, the law students we work with at CEDHA and those we’ve met through friends are remarkably a strong embodiment of the citizen lawyer ideal.
Argentina’s Independence Day was last weekend. We celebrated by going to a fundraiser with a few law students. The party took place in la Villa Maternalidad. Villas are poverty-stricken, self-sustained communities, often walled off from the surrounding city, Seven years ago, the Córdoba government came in with bulldozers and tried to relocate the residents of Villa Maternalidad outside the city limits in an attempt to hide the poverty of the neighborhood and redevelop the land. 32 families stayed behind and remain in the Villa today. The fundraiser was for a group that the law students work with, teaching the children of the Villa about their legal rights and helping its residents fight against unconstitutional laws and detainments.
In conversation after conversation with young men, the topic arises of arrests for “portación de rostro,” or arrests based solely on the way a person looks. Several young men we’ve met, law students among them, have experienced this type of arrest, often accompanied by rough treatment from police officers, simply because they stood too long on one street or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition to being detained for almost no reason, these young men can be held for up to 48 hours without any formal charges. In response to this civil injustice, many of the law students we’ve met also work with organizations to stop the detainment of young men for no reason, or, in the event that they aren’t able to stop the arrest, at least to secure the early release of those young men.
No matter the country, law school is accompanied by periods of stress and a what feels like never-ending work load. While that is certainly true in Argentina, it’s been amazingly refreshing to hear about the level of community involvement students here have. It’s also great how naturally these topics come up in conversation; the students we’ve met truly believe in the projects they’re doing and their ability to bring about social change. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.