Beyond the Border

Columbia Law School Students Are at the Front Lines of the Immigration Crisis, Helping Represent Children Who Face Deportation After Crossing into the United States Illegally

New York, September 22, 2014—When Biyerem Okengwu ’15 immigrated to the United States from Nigeria as a 6-year-old, he had two distinct advantages over the migrant children he helped represent recently as a student in Columbia Law School’s Undocumented and Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth Externship: he was traveling with adult family members, and he had an attorney.

Most of the thousands of young people coming across the border today aren’t as fortunate. In the United States, legal representation in immigration proceedings is not provided by the government. Although Legal Aid estimates that upwards of 60 percent of immigrant children are eligible for legal immigration status under current U.S. law, many of their claims are never properly presented to a court in the absence of an attorney’s assistance. A new Obama administration initiative has compounded the problem: Cases involving minors must come before a judge within 21 days of being placed in deportation proceedings, leaving advocates searching for representation for the children who make up the so-called “surge docket.” The controversial expedited process also has come under fire from immigration judges.
Biyerem Okengwu ’15
Okengwu and other Columbia Law School students are doing their part to help fill that gap, adding their expertise and energy to an overwhelmed and overburdened court system through the externship, which debuted last spring, a new Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, which formally launched this fall, and various pro bono projects.
"Our students are mobilizing to address the humanitarian crisis at the border,” said Columbia Law School Associate Clinical Professor of Law Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.  “We are partnering with legal service providers to monitor the surge docket for immigrant children in New York, providing representation to these children, and educating community members about how to pursue their legal rights."
Kathleen Maloney, a member of the Youth Project at the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit who co-teaches the Undocumented and Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth Externship along with Cristina Romero, another attorney at Legal Aid, said the students are desperately needed.
“There are so many kids in need and so few providers; the students really do make an amazing difference,” she said.
Although many of the young immigrants are fleeing gang violence in their home countries, to be eligible to stay in the U.S. they need a viable claim for legal relief, such as persecution based on a protected class or abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a parent. After an extensive training process, Columbia Law School students interview potential young clients—often with an interpreter—looking for the kind of information that will help in their representation of the kids going forward. The interviews can be emotional. Some of the children have been raped or witnessed severe violence en route to the United States.
“There's no particular form of relief for kids simply because they fear for their lives,” said Anthony D. Tiberio ’14, who took the externship last spring with Okengwu. “It’s hard to talk to them about these very traumatic events, but we try to get as much detail as possible to see if they have a case. A lot of them do.”
Anthony D. Tiberio ’14 took the externship last spring and now works at Legal Aid.
Romero and Maloney said the students provide an invaluable service: every child represented is one more who won’t face a judge and prosecuting attorney alone. For the students, the externship offers the hands-on experience they need to prepare for careers in the law. Working on the cases takes the externs back and forth between state and federal courts in search of relief for their clients and allows them the opportunity to examine witnesses, write affidavits, and make arguments before sitting judges.
Students in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic this fall also are representing unaccompanied minors in addition to working on immigration policy issues.
“The goal is to get all of these kids a lawyer,” Mukherjee said.
Until that happens, Mukherjee’s students will take part in informational sessions in which children are informed of their rights so they can better represent themselves if an attorney is not able to take their case.
Students and graduates who have worked on the cases so far said doing so was one of their most meaningful law school experiences. In fact, many of the externs from last spring are continuing to work on the cases. Elizabeth C.Z. Encinas ’15, Ayla Kawachi ’14 LL.M., and Suehyan Cho-O'Leary ’14 have been helping out on the surge dockets.
left to right: Suehyan Cho-O'Leary ’14 (photo credit Nelson M. Hua '15), Elizabeth C.Z. Encinas ’15, and Ayla Kawachi ’14 LL.M. have volunteered on the expedited dockets involving undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant youth.
“I find it inspirational,” said Encinas, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. “I have the blessing of being here and going to school. They have crawled across the desert and mountains to get here and seen people die on their trips.”
Maloney said the students’ “experience working with the children was more powerful than anything they came into the class with. They left different than when they started.”
Tiberio also left with a fellowship. Although he had hoped to pursue a career in public-interest law, he had not specifically gravitated toward immigration issues. But after taking a class with Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa and representing clients in the Undocumented and Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth Externship, he took a position at Legal Aid this fall.
“I realized how amazing it was to work with attorneys like Tina and Kathleen and how rewarding the work was, how immediate the needs are,” Tiberio said.
Encinas was asked by Maria E. Navarro, a supervising attorney in Legal Aid’s Immigration Law Unit, to serve as a teaching assistant in this fall’s Immigrant Defense Externship.
“I want to remain involved with the work,” Encinas said, recalling her own immigration process. “I remember being terrified that I would say something wrong and we wouldn’t get the green card, and I had two adults with me. When I think about these children navigating the system by themselves, it’s incredible that any of them get through.”
NOTE: If you would like to assist on the surge docket, please reach out to Kathleen Maloney or Tina Romero.  They are working with Professor Elora Mukherjee and Social Justice Initiatives Director of Pro Bono Programs Laren Spirer to ensure that all Columbia Law School volunteers have the training, mentorship and support they need to work on these cases.