Monday, October 28, 2013

The Court is their Classroom - Helping Immigrants Achieve Status

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Through a new partnership between Catholic Charities
and CUA Law, law students Ana (left) and Brittni are helping
serve low-income families facing immigration legal issues.
All their hours of practice, their dry-runs with professors, and their meticulous paperwork and notes were about to pay off. Brittni Downs and Ana Sami, both students at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, arrived at Immigration Court prepared to defend their first client.

"We felt ready, but we were still nervous," said Brittni. "While we waited in the courtroom, we saw someone get deported because his attorney had come unprepared. 
It was a huge wake up call for us. We weren’t in class anymore. People were facing actual consequences, and our client’s fate rested solely in our hands.”

Brittni and Ana met their client through CUA Law’s new Immigration Litigation Clinic, which partners with Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services to offer students an intensive exposure to immigration law through classroom work and actual trial experience. Throughout the year-long course, students apply the principles they learn from textbooks to real-life immigration cases our ILS team is currently working on.

Both Ana and Brittni will graduate from CUA Law in the 
spring. Ana hopes to work in immigration law and Brittni
plans to become a public defender. "I'll be better able
to represent clients whose immigration status may be in
question," she said. 
"Immigration law is a practice area I think a lot of law students and attorneys overlook. It is a space where sound representation makes a very positive difference and prevents fraud," said Michelle Mendez, a senior attorney with Catholic Charities.

The partnership is helping ILS staff to take on more clients while providing the students with opportunities to advocate, gain trial experience under the supervision of seasoned attorneys, and potentially change a person’s life forever.

Mendez and Dree Collopy, a CUA Law alum and partner at Benach Ragland LLP, approach the course as a team, offering students traditional classroom learning in immigration law as well as a clinic component, where students meet with real clients and prepare cases to defend them, with Michelle and Dree serving as supervising attorneys.

“The course is extremely rigorous for students,” Michelle said. “Not only do they need to learn the countless nuances of immigration law, but they’re also being placed outside their comfort zones, taking leadership on a case, and handling all client interactions. For many, it’s their first-ever experience with clients.”

"Our client absolutely qualifies to stay
in the United States," Ana said. "We're
grateful we can help him."
It’s a challenge she and Dree tackle head-on. “We make sure they take charge. When they want us to tell them how to handle something, we encourage them to figure it out on their own. We want to make that switch from student to advocate,” said Dree.

Law students who are part of a nonprofit clinic or college program under direct supervision can apply for permission from a judge in immigration court to serve as a client's pro bono representative.

Thanks their extensive preparation, Ana and Brittni successfully represented their client at his Removal Proceeding, earning him a day in court and the chance to become a legal permanent resident.  "You could see the judge appreciated our following the rules verbatim in court. We had practiced for every potential scenario that might happen," Brittni said. 

A native of Sierra Leone, their client has been living in the United States for over 15 years with his wife and children, who are American citizens. Due to a disability, he is unable to work, so money is tight for the family. Without the students’ pro bono representation, he would have faced immediate deportation. 

“These are real people, with real lives, and real problems,” said Ana. “There are no textbook cases. Every client has their own set of past problems, health concerns, financial concerns, and families. Every student in our class is working within the content of an individual’s unique story. It’s not a law book. It’s a person’s life and future.”

For information about Catholic Charities' Immigration Legal Services, please visit our site or call (202) 772-4356.

For more information about CUA Law, check out their site!