Denver immigrant uses the law to help others seeking asylum

Sean Ays, a third-year law student at DU, has been working to help asylum-seeking immigrants.

Sean Ays came to the United States 33 years ago as an infant held overhead by his mother while she struggled to cross the Rio Grande River.

They were fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, where Ays’ father, a schoolteacher, had vanished one day like so many others kidnapped and presumably killed by gangs.

To escape that life, Ays’ mother was willing to risk the dangerous journey through Guatemala and Mexico, ending in a cold, claustrophobic trip across Texas hidden in a shipping container of ice.

Because of an amnesty program in effect at the time, Ays and his mother were able to obtain visas, become legal residents, and eventually citizens.

But what they endured to get to that point still impacts Ays. It is fueling his dedication to help other immigrants in similar circumstances.

Ays is one of two law students currently taking part in an unusual class at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. The Artesia Lab was fast-tracked by university officials this fall, in a partnership with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, to help with the crisis created by a wave of mothers and children from Mexico and Central America crossing the border to seek asylum.

More than 600 of them are being held at a detention center in the remote town of Artesia, N.M. Many have been detained without proper legal representation as they face deportation.

“My mom and I were lucky we weren’t detained in similar conditions,” said Ays, 34, and now a third-year law student.

Ays’ fellow student Jessica Rehms, and DU lecturer and former American Civil Liberties attorney Lisa Graybill, drove the 550 miles to Artesia several weeks ago to offer free legal counsel in an environment Graybill likens to a “legal mash unit.”

They worked out of cramped trailers where cellphones were prohibited. They had to battle for access to a single printer. Mothers had to tell stories of violence and rape with children in their laps.

“As they are telling these things, I couldn’t hold back tears,” Ays said. “It seems unnecessary these kids have to go through this.”

On the long drive back to Denver, Ays opened up to Rehms and Graybill about his parallel past.

He also told his mother about what he had seen. She works as a laundry room attendant in Denver and she offered to go back to Artesia with him to cook, clean and bring toys — whatever she could.

For now, Ays and other DU law students are continuing to offer legal assistance and monitoring at the Denver Immigration Court. Ays and Rehms plan to return to Artesia.

“It’s an emergency situation. I think of it as doing triage,” said Rehms, who plans to practice immigration law when she graduates in two years.

Ays said he also feels a pull to practice immigration law after his experience. He had attended Cornell and DeVry universities for an undergraduate degree in computer engineering and had thought he would go into patent or intellectual property law. Then he saw ” a lot of people needing help.”

Offering that help, he said, is “how I address my survivor’s guilt.”

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, or

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Denver immigrant uses the law to help others seeking asylum
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