Students Bring First-hand Perspectives to Immigration Law Cases in Southwestern's Newest Clinic
Under the direction of Professor Andrea Ramos, Southwestern's Immigration Law Clinic commenced operation this semester with four students - Tracy Bordignon, Franklin Jiron, Andrea Escalante and Carmen Lainez - who are working on 20 cases. Professor Ramos set the groundwork for the clinic during the Fall semester to ensure a full caseload. Each student handles five cases during the semester. Students were assigned cases on January 13 and began logging in clinic hours the next day, representing low-income children and adults in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) (clients under the age of 21), Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and U-visa cases.
Southwestern alumnus, Judge Gilbert T. Gembacz '79, presided over immigration court for many years before retiring in June 2008. He strongly supported the establishment of Southwestern's Immigration Law Clinic and provided input as it was being developed. "The lack of competent representation is possibly the biggest issue in immigration law," he said. "There are very good and very diligent attorneys in the legal community who represent persons with immigration problems. There just aren't enough of them." He pointed out, "When you compound the huge number of immigrants needing the assistance of attorneys who know what they are doing with the large number of 'notarios' who prey on the immigrant community, you have the situation of near chaos that is very present in Los Angeles today." Judge Gembacz is also encouraged by the opening of the clinic as he feels "it is incumbent upon a law school or legal institution to be responsive to the needs of the community in which they're located."
All of the clinic students are in their third year at Southwestern and are pleased to have this unique opportunity in their last semester of law school. Three of them are immigrants themselves. "I was born in Central America and came to the U.S. when I was 7," Jiron said. "I can relate to our clients."
Escalante completed coursework in immigration law during her second year and is excited to get hands-on experience working with real cases. Having emigrated from Peru at age 11, she was aware from personal experience that "the immigration process can be tedious and frightening." She said, "I've already met with two clinic clients and put a face to a name. It's not like when you work at a job in law school and rarely meet clients because you are mainly doing research." After she graduates, Escalante hopes to do some immigration-related pro bono work.
Lainez emigrated from Nicaragua with her family who sought political asylum. She saw the problems that some family friends encountered during the process and wants to work in immigration law to help those who struggle with the system. "The clinic gives you the chance to actually work with clients. It's a really great opportunity to learn every practical aspect of working on immigration cases," she said, "And the clients are so grateful for the help."
Bordignon, who also plans to practice immigration law, said that the effort is worth it. "It's nice to do this, especially in your third year when students typically have fewer reasons to be on campus. It is way more work than [theoretical] classes, but it is so enjoyable that it feels easier."
Professor Ramos agreed, "It's different to work on an actual case than a hypothetical. It carries a great sense of responsibility."
Escalante added that it gives you much different priorities as a student. "You become the most important person in your clients' lives. What your client stands to gain is far more important than your grade."