An innovative partnership between Cornell Law School and the First Presbyterian and First Baptist Churches of Cooperstown, New York, will expand legal services for immigrant communities in the Mohawk Valley region and beyond. The churches have made a $200,000 gift to the Law School, creating a project to provide family and immigration-related legal services to low-income immigrant farmworkers, families, and youth.
The gift will allow Cornell Law School’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic to hire a two-year Legal Fellow. Under the supervision of Farmworker Clinic director Beth Lyon, the new fellow will work out of an office in the churches to provide legal services in partnership with immigrant communities. The project will begin with a series of conversations with immigrants, community-based organizations and churches, legal service providers, educators, and judicial personnel to determine the project’s priorities.
To form this unique partnership, First Presbyterian’s Interim Pastor Faith Gay sought—and continues to seek—funds from donors in the community and Mohawk Valley region. “This unprecedented gift is a significant moment in our churches’ joint commitment to love and support our neighbors.” Reverend Gay noted. “We are particularly grateful for the hard work of Cindy Falk, special assistant with American Baptist Churches’ International Ministries and congregational lay leader, in obtaining a grant from the American Baptist Home Mission Societies through the Louise Burchard Pierce Memorial Fund to help meet this need.”
Lyon, who is a clinical professor of law and associate dean for experiential education, noted, “as the nation reexamines immigration policies at the southern border, communities living near America’s northern border, including those in central and upstate New York, continue to pay the price for our predatory migration regime. With their longstanding community ties and location in an underserved area, the First Presbyterian and First Baptist Churches of Cooperstown are ideal partners to leverage the Law School’s experience partnering with low-wage immigrant communities to provide priority legal services.”
The donor churches were both founded in Cooperstown, New York, in the nineteenth century, and share deep commitments to social justice and building intercommunity ties. The First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown houses the Cooperstown Food Pantry, partners with Hondurans to provide clean water installations, participates in tutoring efforts, supports Rev. LaDana Clark’s hip-hop youth ministry, and provides space for multiple community and youth education, service, and advocacy efforts. The church also initiated the first Head Start program in Otsego County and sponsored groups of volunteers to work at the border in Dilley, Texas.
The First Baptist Church of Cooperstown, an American Baptist congregation, has a rich history of service, both locally and internationally. The church provided educational services for area children during the pandemic, and it hosts several community groups and a clothing shed to collect and redistribute wearable clothing and household textiles. Internationally, the church has supported disaster relief efforts in Haiti and Honduras.
The Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic began operations six years ago. In the clinic, law students receive academic credit for providing free legal services to farmworkers locally, nationally, and internationally, and one of its primary areas of focus has been handling individual deportation defense cases for child and youth farmworkers. The clinic also provides research and advocacy interventions for policy organizations focused on the welfare of farmworkers.