Faculty Focus

Providing Hope

Immigrants’ Rights

As the head of a new immigrants' rights clinic, Elora Mukherjee connects students with clients who have nowhere else to turn

By Anna Louie Sussman

Spring 2014

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In 1970, Elora Mukherjee’s father arrived in New York City from India on an engineering scholarship with $7 in his pocket. After her mother joined him six years later, the two of them traced a familiar pattern—working multiple jobs and long hours in the hopes of providing their daughters with the opportunities they never had. During her childhood trips back to Patna, the capital of the Indian state of Bihar, Mukherjee began to understand what it meant for her to grow up in America.

“Patna has just unbelievable poverty,” says Mukherjee, who will oversee a new immigrants’ rights clinic at Columbia Law School beginning this fall. “Growing up and seeing the very stark contrast between how people lived in Patna and how I lived in the U.S. made me realize at a young age that the world is unfair, and I should do what I could, as I got older, to make even a small difference in people’s lives.”

In her teaching at the Law School, Mukherjee draws not only from her years of experience working on immigration and criminal justice issues with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she served as a staff attorney, but also on her personal history. “My clients have been pursuing the same dream that my parents had when they came to America,” she says. “And that is the opportunity to create a better life for themselves, for their families, and especially for their children.”

After graduating from law school in 2005, Mukherjee clerked for Judge Jan E. DuBois of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and then moved on to the ACLU as a Marvin M. Karpatkin Fellow in the organization’s Racial Justice Program. In that role, she litigated her first cases involving immigrant children: those detained at T. Don Hutto, a former prison near Austin, Texas, that is now a detention center for immigrant families. She investigated the grim conditions at the facility, where, among other things, paper and pencils were banned from individual cells after a 9-year-old Canadian boy who was born to Iranian parents created a heartbreaking and colorful drawing that was taken out of the facility. (The drawing’s first line, written in bright orange marker, stated, “I don’t like to stay in this jail.”) In 2007, Mukherjee and her ACLU colleagues negotiated a far-reaching settlement, which improved conditions at the facility and shortened the length of time that families were detained. All 26 children represented by the ACLU team were released.

Before joining Columbia Law School as a clinical teaching fellow in May of 2013, Mukherjee also worked as an ACLU staff attorney on impact litigation involving everything from racial profiling in Texas to ballot access issues in Nebraska to debtors’ prisons cases in Michigan, as well as on several cases challenging state laws restricting immigrants’ rights. During the past year, she has co-taught, with Professor Brett Dignam, the Law School’s Mass Incarceration Clinic.

At the helm of the new immigrants’ rights clinic, Mukherjee will guide students in representing individual clients at two detention centers in New Jersey and oversee advocacy work on immigration policy issues. She will also advise students participating in a new Law School partnership with Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to unaccompanied minors in immigration proceedings.

“These are two wonderful new opportunities for students at Columbia who are interested in immigrants’ rights work and public service,” Mukherjee says. “It’s a very exciting time to be here at Columbia.”

Anna Louie Sussman has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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Illustration by Michael Austin