Up for the Challenge

Students in the Columbia Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic Won Their First Asylum Case With the Help of Clinic Director Elora Mukherjee, Who Joins the Full-Time Faculty as an Associate Clinical Professor of Law on July 1.

New York, May 30, 2014—The story of how the Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic won its first asylum case begins with a loss—not of a case but of a client who decided he wanted to return home to Pakistan to help his family rather than fight his deportation from a cell at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.

It was the right decision for the client. But the about-face was tough for Columbia Law School students Jenna W. Long ’15 and David J. Kim ’14 who believed the man had a legitimate asylum claim and were determined to represent him under the guidance of Immigrants’ Rights Clinic Director Elora Mukherjee, who joins the full-time faculty at the Law School as an associate clinical professor of law on July 1. Nevertheless, one Thursday morning in February, Long and Kim appeared in the detention center courtroom under Mukherjee’s supervision to notify the judge of their client’s decision to return home.
Client-Centered Lawyering
Elora Mukherjee, who will join the faculty as an associate clinical professor of law on July 1, 2014, teaches her students to practice client-centered lawyering.
The Law School’s new clinic aims to provide high-quality legal representation to immigrants detained at Elizabeth and another New Jersey facility, Delaney Hall. While disappointing to Long and Kim, the removal order “was a victory” for the Pakistani man who felt a strong need to be with his family, said Mukherjee, who arrived at the Law School in 2013 after focusing on racial justice and immigration cases as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a lesson in what she describes to her students as “client-centered lawyering.”
“As lawyers, we work in a service industry,” Long explained. “Your goals are not always the same as your client’s. You have to put aside your personal beliefs and any ambition.”
After Long and Kim finished their work on the removal order, they went back to the detention center’s visitation area to find a new client. But after 10 hours of intake interviews, they still hadn’t met anyone they felt they could help. Then, a new client found them. Just as the students were discussing transportation back to Manhattan, a detainee approached them with a guard in tow.
“I’m looking for David and Jenna,” the man said. “I was hoping to talk to you about my case.”
He handed Long and Kim a four-page document detailing the persecution he faced as a gay man in Nigeria, a country that criminalized homosexuality in January. His case, it turned out, was already well under way—his next court appearance was in three days.
“We had a very quick powwow with Elora—‘Do you want to do this? Do you realize the time constraints? Do you feel capable?’” Long recalled. The answers were all affirmative. “We started work on the affidavit that night.”
Collaborative Effort
Long, Kim, and other students in the clinic, including Katherine J. Park ’14 and Urooj Khan ’15, worked all weekend with Mukherjee to prepare for the Monday morning appearance, finishing a final draft of their client’s asylum application at 4 a.m. After explaining the circumstances to the judge, they were given additional time to prepare the application.
In the following two weeks, the students interviewed their client, his brother in Nigeria, and other witnesses extensively. Before the merits hearing on April 15, they had submitted nearly 700 pages demonstrating the persecution their client had faced and would face in the future. Much of the material was very personal information about their client’s sexuality and the violence he was subjected to in Nigeria.
“In an asylum case, you have to have a really good relationship with your client,” Kim said. “You need to be able to elicit very sensitive facts, and you have to convey to the client that, with these facts, we’re going to make your case.”
Long and Kim handled the half-day merits hearing, including opening and closing arguments and their client’s testimony on the stand. They expected the judge to rule on the application immediately, but she took the matter under submission. The clinic students were nervous, but their client remained calm.
“He said he trusted us,” Kim remembered. “He said he knew that whatever happened, we would have his back.”
On May 2, the judge issued a ruling granting asylum, finding the clinic’s client had a well-founded fear of future persecution.
“‘Granting’ is such a simple word,” Long said. “But this grant gives our client permanent safety. He is on the path to citizenship in the United States, which affords a level of protection his home country could never offer.”
Filling a Void
Kim said the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School fills a void. Despite the fact that immigration detention is at an all-time high in the United States, immigrants in removal proceedings have no right to counsel.
“Many immigrants with legitimate claims to status have no one to help them navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system,” Mukherjee said. “Our Immigrants' Rights Clinic provides critical legal services to individuals who would otherwise be forced to navigate the immigration system alone.”
A few hours after the judge issued her decision, Kim drove the clinic’s client to a Nigerian relative’s house in Connecticut, talking with him about everything from pursuing a GED to the possibility of sleeping through the night without being counted by guards.
“That was the best part,” Kim said. “Basically, everything we were working for this semester was validated by that drive. He was so astounded. He couldn’t believe he was free.”
Learning by Doing
Long and Kim both said the clinic and the case changed their lives, teaching them practical skills—such as how to negotiate with an opposing attorney and speak to a judge—as well as less tangible things, such as how to relate to someone who has suffered.
“Representing detained immigrants is challenging,” Mukherjee said. “There is tremendous pressure to move cases quickly. From a pedagogical perspective, the quick timeline is beautiful. Students learn and practice every stage of the litigation process—from the initial client interview through trial—within the confines of a single semester.”
In addition to representing individuals, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School collaborates with local and national immigrants’ rights organizations on regulatory and legislative reforms, impact litigation, grassroots advocacy, and strategic planning. Long and Kim said their client’s victory was the first of many future wins for the clinic.
“If clinic students are willing to put in the work, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish with Elora behind them,” Long said.