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Clinical Programs - Immigration Appellate Law and Advocacy Clinic

Student Reflections

"Without a doubt, this clinic has been one of the most challenging research and writing experiences in law school. We have developed our appellate advocacy skills and learned the intricate workings of immigration law. The most important skill we've learned is to put our client first…knowing that our client's life hung in the balance, it was our job to write a brief that was legally sound, but that still managed to tell our client's story."—2007 Student Team

"Our client is filled with so much hope. This fight for her asylum status is one of the most important fights in her life…not getting asylum, withholding or CAT threatens to send her back to Somalia – a country whose political chaos, absence of human rights practices, and open hostility towards women and minorities literally serves as a death sentence. Yet speaking to her on the phone, she is filled with graciousness and gratitude. "Thank you, thank you," she repeats. "Just one thing," she will say apologetically, before asking about the likely outcomes of her case. "If you don't mind," as she relates her daughter's excited request to speak to us over the phone."—Student, 2007 clinic

"Especially where there are numerous issues informing each other in one case, I had to learn to organize, balance and think critically about where each fact belonged. Working on this case has been a test of sifting through various bits to tell our client's story in a manner that will get him relief…fulfilling my role as an advocate for my client and a writer for an objective (though this term now seems generous) reader at the BIA. These are surely skills that I will carry with me throughout my career and skills whose utilization I hope have presently gained my client relief."—Student, 2007 clinic

"This clinic served as a terrific learning opportunity for both of us. In addition to providing a solid introduction to black-letter asylum law, our work afforded substantial client contact. Many practitioner skills, such as the ability to successfully interview a non-English speaking client with the aid of a translator, are best—and perhaps only—developed through such actual client interaction. Importantly, students work under the close and supportive supervision of the clinical faculty and with helpful input from other members of the asylum clinic."—2007 Student Team

"One of the highlights of the summer was finding out that our client [won his appeal]. The clinic experience was very intense because it was so much work but to go through all of that ... this was definitely a great way to have things end."—Student, 2007 clinic

For further reflections from students please see these reflection papers:

April 24, 2010 Reflection Paper

The most memorable aspect of the Immigration Appellate Law and Advocacy Clinic, for me, will be the interactions my partner and I had with our client, Matthew. Although we were offering our time and services to help him with his immigration status and advise him, I felt that I was often learning a great deal from him. Throughout our interactions I learned how the skills I have learned can be applied in a real-life setting, how to interact with a client and to take advantage of the knowledge that he has, and how the legal education I have received puts me in a position where I can make a significant difference in someone's life.

Before our first conversation with our client, I was pretty nervous. Most of what I had learned after two-and-a-half years in law school was theoretical and not applicable to having to real-life interactions with a client whose life could depend on whether I make the right decisions. However, shortly into our first conversation I realized that this would be much easier than I expected. Matthew was very excited about us working on his case and had a positive attitude.

Over the course of our weekly conversations, we got to know Matthew better. He spent much of the week pouring over the record and researching in the law library and he often had helpful comments concerning his case. We also learned more about his life in Kenya and his last two years in detention. After we had finished getting factual information from Matthew, our conversations focused more on the strategy of our brief and making sure that any questions or concerns he had were taken care of.

Finally, we had the opportunity to visit Matthew. Seeing him in person drove home the fact that he was just like everyone else our age, except for living through an unbelievable stream of horrific events that led to his indefinite detention thousands of miles away from home. Putting a face with the voice we had been talking to made me feel more invested in the case as I realized that his future depended mainly on the quality of the work submitted on his behalf.

I took several lessons away from our conversations with Matthew. First, on more of a personal than legal note, I learned a great deal from Matthew's perspective on his life. Despite the all the events leading up to his detention, he had a very positive attitude about his situation in all of our conversations. Instead of being bitter about the past, Matthew was always optimistic about the future and what it might bring. It really put in perspective all the petty concerns that many of us have as law students, or at least that I do. I have found that, particularly with asylum applicants, there is an incredible amount to learn listening to someone's life story and his perspective on it.

Second, I learned how to effectively interact with a client. I discovered that the most important aspect of our discussions was not what I had to tell him, but rather it was to listen carefully to what he had to say. His comments on the case were usually helpful and insightful. Matthew was consistently reading over the record, the IJ opinions, and spending time in the law library reading cases. Matthew also seemed to take pride in the fact that he was contributing to the team effort in writing the brief. Most importantly, it seemed that after his long detention and the failure of many to listen to his story, he wanted to simply talk and have someone listen. In our first classes, I wondered how I was supposed to empathize with someone whose situation I could not relate to, but I found with a little experience that it was easy to do if I just listened.

Third, I realized how the legal education I have received can make a huge difference to someone. I entered the clinic wondering how much I could help someone with a largely theoretical legal education and little practical experience. However, I soon discovered that the training I have allowed me to offer a great deal to someone who is placed in a position where he feels powerless against our "justice" system. Although Matthew was fortunate enough to have prior legal representation, most people in his situation receive little legal assistance. For people like them, the limited experience law students can offer is far greater than what they could normally expect. Even with his prior representation, Matthew was always grateful for what we had to offer. This made me realize, in practice, the privilege it is to have a Cornell Law School education, and it gave me a practical understanding of the ethical obligation to do pro bono work: the legal education I have received should be used in a positive way to help others who are unaware of the tools necessary to access our justice system and unable to afford someone to assist them. Going forward, I hope to be able to use the skills I learned in this clinic to continue to advocate for members of disadvantaged communities. It is easy to forget why one came to law school, and most importantly this clinic and Matthew have reminded me why I came to Cornell in the first place.

April 27, 2010 Reflection Paper

Just fifteen minutes outside of Phoenix and the staggered skyline of buildings gave way to sprawling desert, a barren lunar landscape interrupted only by the occasional saguaro cactus. We drove for hours through this hushed expanse, the blue sky swelling almost too large around us, until a row of dilapidated storefronts and small farm plots suggested civilization nearby. Zipping past a herd of sheep nearing the crosswalk, our car bounded unevenly over the unpaved gravel road into yet more miles of desert. Finally, a giant cactus looming several stories high came to view marking our destination – Eloy Detention Center, where our client William was housed.

The detention center looked alien in these alien surroundings, monolithic and imposing in contrast to the unassuming tranquility around it. We approached the Center's reinforced steel entrance gingerly, eventually making our way through three sets of doors that slammed with heavy, authoritative thuds behind us. After checking in at the front desk, we entered the cramped visitation area where detainees awaited their guests. The scene was hopelessly chaotic: a single guard, barking into the phone, stood over a desk covered with identification cards. One lone detainee wailed maniacally in Chinese to himself while others paced about impatiently, waiting for one of the five small visitation rooms to empty. Meanwhile, we stood awkward and nonplussed amidst the fray.

Eventually a man approached us and shyly asked if we were Mark and Victoria. His voice, laden heavy with a lilting Kenyan accent, was undeniably the same one we had heard every week on the telephone since we were first assigned our case. And yet, despite the many foreign encounters that had marked the day, the appearance of our client Will was perhaps the most startling of all. Aside from his jumpsuit (red, he explained sheepishly, because of his disciplinary infractions), he looked absolutely, almost comically, normal, like any other person I would pass in the corridor at school.

As William made his introduction, I felt like I was watching a cold marble sculpture of facts, procedural history, and country reports transforming into a living, breathing Galatea. No longer was our client "William Evans, a 25 year-old native of Kenya"-lines on a page whose background I highlighted in yellow and legally relevant suffering in green. William Evans was this person standing before us. He was shaking our hand, laughing, telling us stories. He was my age, 25, except that while I was a junior in college fretting about midterms he was fleeing Kenya for fear of his life. All of this-the recounted murder of his father at the hands of an angry mob and now the raucous, oppressive detention center isolated in miles of desert-was part of his day-to-day lived experience.

Of the countless benefits I have derived from the asylum clinic this past semester, I believe that it has most importantly humanized the law for me. I had grown accustomed to reading cases like I would have read a novel as an English major in college, dissecting Mrs. Smith's rights, duties, and remedies with the cold, sterile scalpel of the law. Yet after watching the "Well-Founded Fear" and "Live From Jail" documentaries and, finally, meeting our own wronged client, I grew to appreciate the overridingly human impulses that animate any single case. William, for instance, represented himself pro se during his master calendar hearing simply because he could not afford counsel. The IJ, preoccupied with the many other cases he was hearing that afternoon, failed to notify William that the one-year deadline for his asylum application was the very next day. As a result, William's asylum application is most likely time-barred. Practically speaking, a simple administrative oversight and the fact that William was a few hundred dollars short of cash in August of 2006 closed off an entire avenue of rights. Similarly, we discovered through Tally, William's former pro-bono lawyer, that the second IJ who heard William's case was new to the bench at the time and unfailingly deferential to her senior colleagues. This explained why, although she seemed very sympathetic to his case in the hearing transcript, her decision and order read as a reconstituted version of the first IJ's opinion.

Back in Eloy Detention Center, meanwhile, William has awaited a resolution to his case for two years now. Despite everything he has undergone, William remains upbeat. He apparently speaks to his mother a great deal; the two of them escaped Kenya together and she encourages him not to give up. He keeps busy by reading the transcripts from prior proceedings and doing research on his own, some of which he has sent us. In my mind, William is no longer a case study with legal issues to remedy, but a person whose youth is passing away in a glorified prison in the desert.

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