Out of the Shadows

With a new immigrants' rights clinic and an innovative partnership to assist children facing deportation from the U.S., Columbia Law School has set the standard for immigration law training

By Anna Louie Sussman

Spring 2014

The last major landmark a visitor from New York City sees along the New Jersey Turnpike on the way to the Elizabeth Detention Center is a massive Ikea, where shoppers can choose from 92 different curtain options, and Ikea Family Card holders are entitled to free coffee at the store’s Swedish restaurant. Exiting the turnpike, those intent on visiting the detention facility descend into an industrial landscape of nearly indistinguishable freight depots, warehouses, and FedEx trucks.

Windowless and clad in beige brick, the center, a converted warehouse, blends easily into its environs. But a few important traits set it apart from the cargo buildings down the street: the absence of trucks in the parking lot, the security fence surrounding the structure, and, most importantly, the fact that approximately 300 detained immigrants—many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing persecution, violence, or worse back in their home countries—are being held within its confines.

The vast majority of detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center, like most of the approximately 400,000 immigrants who cycle annually through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system, face the deportation process alone because there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings. These immigrants are physically isolated, often speak no English, and need legal assistance that can be especially challenging to provide, even when there are lawyers available to help.  

“It is extraordinarily difficult to represent detained asylum-seekers,” says Columbia Law School Associate Clinical Professor of Law Elora Mukherjee, who launched the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the Law School this past fall. “To name one example of the logistical difficulties, we can’t even have legal phone calls with our clients in immigration detention, in stark contrast to the relatively easy availability of legal phone calls for those convicted of crimes and incarcerated in prison.”

The new clinic aims to provide high-quality legal representation to immigrants detained at Elizabeth and another New Jersey facility, Delaney Hall. In its first semester, the clinic has represented seven detainees, including four asylum seekers, and one individual seeking a U visa, which offers a pathway to legalization for victims of crime. This May, clinic participants won their first asylum case for a detainee at the Elizabeth Detention Center. Students represented the man in his trial—handling everything from opening and closing statements to defending the cross examination. When the client left the facility as a free man on the path to U.S. citizenship, a Columbia Law School student drove him to a long-awaited reunion with his family in Connecticut.

In addition to representing individuals, the clinic also offers students opportunities to collaborate with local or national immigrants’ rights organizations. They take on projects that involve regulatory or legislative reform, impact litigation, grassroots advocacy, and strategic planning.

The clinic is part of an expanded focus on immigrants’ rights issues at the Law School that also includes a partnership with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit organization providing legal representation for minors who have arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied and are facing removal proceedings. In November of this past year, KIND moved its New York City offices into a room leased by the Law School on Columbia University’s East Campus. Since that time, 14 law students have been trained to represent these children, some of whom are as young as two, as part of an innovative model that places the students at large law firms that have committed pro bono hours to KIND’s mission. 

As head of Columbia Law School’s new Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Elora Mukherjee oversees students working in groups of two and three. The students conduct client interviews, draft legal filings, and appear in court (under Mukherjee’s law license) on behalf of their clients. Mukherjee, who focused on racial justice and immigration cases as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union before arriving at the Law School in 2013, provides detailed feedback on their written work and meets with each group at least weekly to discuss the progress of their cases.

She is also working to develop relationships with a broad range of Columbia University scholars and departments. “We’re trying to connect our clients with physicians, for example, to get a psychiatric evaluation, by building connections with the medical school,” says Katherine Park ’14, one of the students who participated in the clinic’s inaugural semester. Such connections, Mukherjee notes, can benefit clients, while at the same time ensuring that clinic students become adept at working with professionals in other fields.

The day-to-day work being done by clinic participants is hands-on, intense, and consuming: Mukherjee and her students email and speak by phone multiple times a day, and they schedule late-night calls to go over the cases or rehearse potential real-world scenarios. (She recently coached two students until 11 p.m. on how to interact with a lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security if they saw him at the detention center the following morning.) The practical consequences of these efforts could not be more evident. “[It] is high-stakes,” says Mukherjee. “Our clients have been persecuted in their home countries. If we don’t win, they will be forced to return there. The students really feel how important their work is, and they’re deeply invested in doing it right.”

Elora Mukherjee is quick to point out that immigration detention is at a historic, all-time high in the U.S. “Never before has America seen anything like the current 34,000 average daily detention mandate,” she says. That number is up from 18,000 just a decade ago. While most detainees are in state and county jails, nearly 13,000 are held in privately run facilities operated by the two largest ICE contractors, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, Inc., according to a 2013 report from the National Immigration Forum. The Department of Homeland Security has allocated nearly $2 billion in 2014 for custody operations alone.

Mukherjee notes that once they are detained, immigrants face an uphill battle against deportation. “The Columbia Law School clinic is providing a vital service to some of the most vulnerable immigrants caught in the system,” she says.

This past semester, Mukherjee’s students collectively spent hundreds of hours doing legal work at the New Jersey detention centers—often leaving New York City at 6 a.m. in order to meet with their clients before classes, or spending large chunks of their weekends there. Jenna Wrae Long ’15, one of the clinic’s first participants, is training for a career in criminal prosecution and applied for the clinic to better understand how the immigration system works. She reasoned that, as someone who would one day be responsible for exercising governmental authority, she should try to understand the experiences of those subject to that power. It was in the shadow of that authority, meeting with detained clients at both the Elizabeth and Delaney Hall detention centers, where she experienced the moments she will remember most from the clinic.

“You’re speaking with clients during what can be the most terrifying experiences of their lives, but you can also offer hope,” she says. “Because of you just visiting them, you just caring, because you agree to take on their case—it helps these individuals understand that not only is someone in this country going to fight for them, but they feel a little bit less alone.”

For third-year student Katherine Park, the clinic has been a critical step on a path toward practicing immigration law full time after graduation. As a second-year law student, she pursued externships with The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit and The Bronx Defenders, working alongside attorneys who specialized in immigration and criminal defense. During her clinic work, Park learned from Mukherjee’s emphasis on “client-centered lawyering,” which challenged her to put aside her own notions of what the desired outcome should be, in favor of really listening to her clients’ needs.

“There’s always a question of how much the lawyer should guide decision-making in a lawyer-client relationship,” says Park, who will serve as a fellow for the Immigrant Justice Corps beginning this fall. “Elora has been so helpful in [getting us to] think through what it means when, for example, a client says, ‘All I want is to be deported,’ and how, even if we think there are avenues for relief, to be supportive of what [our client] wants. We’re advocates, but it doesn’t mean we’re there to push an agenda on our client.”

As if working on behalf of detained adults is not difficult enough, representing minors in deportation proceedings adds another layer of complexity and brings its own set of unique challenges, according to Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith ’84, a co-founder (along with actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie) of KIND.

“Part of being an effective lawyer definitely involves learning someone else’s story and learning how to tell it effectively to a court, and that’s sometimes more challenging when the client is a minor,” says Smith, who recently worked with KIND board member and Columbia Law School Dean of Students Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin ’99 to find Law School office space for the organization. “Their ability to think about their story may not be as well-developed as when they’re an adult, so there’s a certain skill required to help them figure out what it is about their story that’s most compelling.”

The new partnership with Columbia Law School enables students to be matched up with one of KIND’s law firm partners and spend time working on KIND cases in-house, under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

Smith notes that representing children, especially when translating the details of a case to a young person unfamiliar with U.S. law, can be particularly helpful in strengthening advocacy and communication skills. “If you can take a complicated legal issue and connect with a child, a teenager, or somebody who’s younger, you can connect with anybody,” he says. “Part of being a successful lawyer is taking this wonderful intellectual capability and connecting it with other people.”

And the uniquely vulnerable situation of these younger clients, he adds, galvanizes the lawyers and students who work with KIND.

“As a lawyer, you serve other people, and when you have the opportunity to represent a child, it’s actually a very special relationship,” Smith says. “It’s a lot of pressure, because someone’s life—their freedom, their ability to stay in the U.S.—may effectively be, at least in part, in your hands. And I think that’s one of the reasons people are so motivated to do such good work on these cases.”

In the six years since KIND’s founding, its work representing immigrant children has spread to eight cities. But the organization’s growth has been outpaced by the steep rise in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking safety in the U.S. In 2013, nearly 25,000 children entered U.S. custody, up from 13,625 in 2012. And that number could more than double to 60,000 in 2014, according to predictions from the U.S. government.

Because of the new clinical offering, and the partnership with KIND, Mukherjee notes, with evident pride, that Columbia Law School students will have more opportunities than ever to represent immigrants of all ages.

“This is an important moment for legal education at Columbia Law School,” says Mukherjee. “We have committed to train our students with real lawyering skills in the context of high-stakes immigration cases for children and those who are detained. The need for legal representation is greater than ever.”

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