Immersed In Immigration Law

As Columbia Law School's Immigrants' Rights Clinic Begins Its Second Full Year, Current and Former Students Are Hard at Work on Behalf of Asylum Seekers, Inspired by the Cases and by Clinic Director Professor Elora Mukherjee

New York, September 30, 2015—When Columbia Law School student Angelica “Angie” Juarbe ’16 returned to Dilley, Texas, in August to represent immigrant women and their children who were being held in a detention center run by a for-profit prison operator, she was supposed to stay for only one week.

But then she found out a judge planned to issue a ruling several days after her originally scheduled departure in the case of a family fleeing gang violence. So she missed her flight. On purpose.
 
“I couldn’t not be there to see them leave,” Juarbe said of the 39-year-old mother who, along with her 12-year-old daughter, won the right to stay in the United States and was released after spending several months in the Dilley facility (Juarbe is now helping represent the mother’s eldest daughter). “I got to ride with her all the way to San Antonio. We went to Dairy Queen.”
 
Juarbe’s victory is one of several this summer and this month by students in and recent graduates of Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic under the supervision of Professor Elora Mukherjee. Mukherjee and her students have been at the forefront of efforts to provide legal representation to the thousands of women and children who have moved through the detention center since it opened last year. Along with a caseload representing unaccompanied minors in New York and adult immigrants detained in New Jersey, the clinic is continuing its work in Dilley this fall—participants recently returned from a weeklong trip to the tiny Texas town where they worked 13-hour days and each handled at least one court hearing.
 
At a recent class session, the team debriefed about the trip and talked about what steps they can take to help end the practice of family detention in the United States. They were joined by two Columbia University psychiatry fellows who have signed on to help.
 
“I challenge us all to be visionaries,” Mukherjee said in class. “We’re here because we want to end family detention. But what does that mean? And how do we get there?”
 
Students shared their experiences in Dilley, discussing the challenges—professional and personal—that come along with representing women and children who have fled violence and persecution only to be detained against their will in the United States. The students won release for many of their clients. But they also faced setbacks.
 
Chris E. Mendez ’17 said the most frustrating thing for him was that some of the women’s trauma—however horrific—didn’t fit neatly into the categories of existing asylum law.
 
“Then you have to say, ‘did anything else happen to you?’” Mendez said. “As if that wasn’t enough.”
 
Juarbe, who hopes to practice immigration law after she graduates, made her first trip to Dilley in May with Mukherjee and other fellow Columbia Law School students. Since then, Mukherjee has returned several times, joined in August by Juarbe, Shannon Cleary ’15, Catherine “Cat” Kim ’15, Jeri “Demi” Lorant ’16, and Nicole G. Tortoriello ’16. Like many of her classmates, Juarbe has stayed involved with the clinic’s work since enrolling initially. She signed up for the clinic when it officially launched last fall, then served as an advanced clinic student and a teaching assistant in the spring. She’s assisting Mukherjee again this semester, saying the work is too important to leave behind.
 
Juarbe credits Mukherjee as a role model and mentor.
 
“It’s been incredible to work with her,” she said. “She is so committed to her clients and is able to provide such guidance. She helps us be able to do the work.”
 
Mukherjee, whose own parents emigrated to the U.S. from India, has organized a team that prepares Dilley clients for hearings remotely with the help of students from Columbia Law School and Yale Law School, her alma mater. Her goal is to eventually end family detention.
 
The policy already has been dealt multiple blows. In February, a federal judge in Washington ruled the government cannot detain people for the purpose of deterring other migrants from entering the United States. And in July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California ruled that the practice of family detention violates an earlier settlement governing the treatment of immigrant children. She followed that up with a ruling in August ordering the government to release the women and children currently detained. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 are still detained.
 
“The fact that the government is treating this population so harshly is heartbreaking,” said Juarbe, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved with her family to Michigan when she was three. “It flies in the face of the American Dream and everything I would want this country to stand for.”
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