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Law students provide vital help to immigrants

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Editor's note: This story has been corrected.

With a comprehensive immigration reform package now before Congress, significant changes regarding visas, border security and obtaining citizenship could be coming. The legislative process will be long and no one knows what the final product – if there is a final product – will look like.

However, law school professors are certain the need for their students to do immigration work and the need among non-citizens for legal help will remain high and likely will continue to grow.

immigration-6271-15col.jpg Notre Dame Law School students Eloy Aguirre (left) and Michael Hagerty prepare for an upcoming asylum trial before the Chicago Immigration Court.(Photo submitted)

All four of Indiana’s law schools offer some type of program allowing students to represent immigrants on a variety of legal matters. From helping teenagers fill out a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals petition to arguing for a grant of asylum, the students do a lot of heavy lifting in an area of the law that has too few resources.

Without the students, the strain would become greater, said Lisa Koop, managing attorney for National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. Nonprofits providing immigrant legal services would be stretched even further and more non-citizens would have to maneuver the court system by themselves.

The law schools, she said, are playing a critical role in responding to the need.

Moreover the stakes are very high in these complex and difficult cases. Families could face the prospect of being torn apart, and victims of persecution could face death if the students are not successful.

A recent case handled by the immigration law clinic at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law demonstrates the gravity and emotional weight these cases can carry. A couple from Africa sought asylum because, as a result of the wife’s political activities, she had been arrested, tortured and raped, and the husband had been arrested and tortured as well.

Under the guidance of I.U. McKinney School of Law professor Linda Kelly Hill, the students made three separate trips to the Chicago Immigration Court and ultimately won. The couple can remain safe in the United States and eventually become citizens.

“I have always said law students do better immigration work than attorneys because they are just so incredibly dedicated,” Kelly Hill said. “They have the time and energy to give to these cases.”

Focus on education

Valparaiso University Law School started an immigration clinic in August 2012, with offices in Valparaiso and Chicago to serve the non-citizen population of northwest Indiana.

Geoffrey Heeren, assistant professor of law, established the clinic and now tries to balance the mission to educate the students with providing a service to the community. His responsibility is to select cases and projects that best teach the students about immigration law.

The goal is to give the students a holistic experience where they can learn the techniques of being a good lawyer, not just of being a good immigration lawyer. Through their clinical work, the students can learn how to negotiate, make opening and closing arguments, cross-examine witnesses and argue a brief before the court.

They serve the community needs as best they can, but Heeren noted demand for assistance is great, and they are just a few students who are learning to be lawyers.

“No way could any law school clinic meet the full scope of enormous need for immigrant legal aid,” he said.

Working in the immigration clinics does provide a terrific pedagogical experience. They have helped clients from just about every continent with cases involving female genital mutilation, applications for U Visas which are given to crime victims, and petitions under the Violence Against Women Act.

Along the way, students learn the skills, like how to develop a relationship with their client and how to try a case, that will help them no matter what field of law they go on to practice.

Koop, who started and currently runs the immigration externship program at the Notre Dame Law School, pointed out the students in the immigration programs are often working in a cutting-edge area of the law. Definitions are expanding and contracting with court decisions and, in particular, the area of asylum law is rapidly changing.

Aimee Heitz, staff immigration attorney at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis, changed her focus in law school because of her experience with an immigration clinic.

When she enrolled in the I.U. McKinney School of Law, she wanted to practice international human rights law. But in that area, she found the law to be nebulous and lacking any ability to get countries to comply.

Working in the immigration clinic, the law was more concrete, she said, and she was able to provide services for her clients. On top of that, hearing the immigrants’ stories of what they had been through just made the work more compelling.

valpo-2013-immigration-clinic-01-15col.jpg Valparaiso University Law School assistant professor Geoffrey Heeren (center, back row) runs the immigration clinic at the university where students handle a variety of difficult and complex cases.(Photo submitted)

Started by students

At the law schools across the state, the story is the same – the immigration clinics and externships came about because the students wanted them.

Before the immigration clinic officially opened at I.U. McKinney School of Law, students were piling into their cars and caravanning to the Southwest Indiana Regional Youth Village in Knox County. The juvenile detention facility had a federal contract to house undocumented, unaccompanied minors from all over the country.

Eventually these children would be taken to Chicago for immigration hearings, but in Indiana they had no visits from attorneys. Because of the remote location of the facility, no one was going out there to talk to the detainees.

The law students educated the children on their rights and about the immigration court process.

In these conversations, the students heard stories about the immigrant detainees staging a peaceful protest in the facility and being met by the Knox County SWAT team complete with dogs and batons. Some kids went to solitary confinement, others were injured. As the story came to light, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit.

Looking back, Kelly Hill does not know if anyone would have found out about the incident if the I.U. McKinney School of Law students had not been there talking to the children.

At the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, students drove the creation of the Pro Bono Immigration Project. Still in its infancy, about 35 students are actively participating even though they receive no academic credit or pay.

“What is so inspiring about this project is that this was truly a student-led initiative,” Jayanth Krishnan, professor and faculty advisor to the project, told Indiana Lawyer. “… Their main motivation is to help those in real need.”

In addition to assisting with immigration legal matters at charitable organizations in Bloomington and Indianapolis, the students have also conducted in-depth research for a particular immigration case. They have worked with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas and for the Haynes and Boone LLP law firm in Texas.

Students are attracted to the work, Kelly Hill said, because they have the opportunity to change people’s lives.

“I think you see immediately the impact you have and how tremendous that impact is,” she said.

Reform

The law professors agree that a change in the national immigration law could create more work for the clinics, especially if undocumented workers currently in the country had a path to citizenship.

Legal help would be especially important, Koop pointed out, since reform could make immigrants more vulnerable to fraud.

“It’s hard to know specifically, given that the plan hasn’t been passed, but we’re confident that if more legal avenues and options are eventually available for non-citizens to become legal, the demand for the type of work our students are doing likely will increase,” Krishnan added.•

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