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Law School Develops Seminar Offering Critical Perspectives on Race and Migration

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the burgeoning conversations around race and the law in 2020, a group of Cornell professors was inspired to create a Law School course focused on race and migration. The initial team, consisting of Cornell Law Professors Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, Ian M. Kysel, Beth Lyon, Estelle McKee, Steve Yale-Loehr, and Chantal Thomas, and Shannon Gleeson of the ILR School, created an innovative one-credit “faculty at home” seminar launched in spring 2021. Each seminar session of the Critical Perspectives on Race and Migration course was focused on a specific area within race and migration. Topics ranged from crimmigration to labor to the immigration of Black, Asian, and Latinx groups. The pilot seminar led to support from the Cornell Migrations Initiative to continue and expand the course, including by bringing on Professor Brian Richardson in 2022.

With the Cornell Migrations Initiative behind them, Professors Kelley-Widmer, Kysel, Lyon, McKee, and Richardson developed the course into a broader community-engaged project for the spring 2022 semester and beyond. The community-engaged course encourages students to explore challenging questions and topics around race, migration, and dispossession with other students, professors, community partners, and migration advocates on the local, national, and international levels, including the Ithaca Asian American Association, Al Otro Lado, Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

The course is unique among Cornell Law School’s race and migration–related offerings because of its intimate setting—held partially at the Law School and partially in professors’ homes.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about race and migration in a smaller, more informal setting that was different from the typical Law School class,” said Katie Rahmlow ’23.

The Race and Migrations course also provides a rare opportunity to blend theoretical legal study with opportunities to engage with the practical work of migration advocates and the lived experiences of migrants and migrant communities.

“I appreciated how the class gave that global perspective,” said Monét Thomas ’23, adding that she “enjoyed the [pre-class] discussion questions” that shaped the conversations.

For Moiz Bharmal ’23, “the most impactful aspect of the class were the community partners that Prof. Kelley-Widmer and Prof. Richardson brought in for most weeks, including law professors, practicing lawyers, and migrants.”

“Between the brilliant and entertaining guest speakers, the readings, the podcasts, and class discussion, I have learned so much as an immigrant myself,” concluded Nkemdirim Obodo ’24.

In spring 2022, students completed four major research projects for the seminar’s partner organizations, which included legal research memos on conviction vacatur nationwide and race-based persecution of asylum seekers in Mexico, a report and checklist on implicit bias in immigration courts, and a video about the migration story and lived experience of a local couple, Jean and King Tang, whose family owned the first Asian restaurant in Ithaca.

Students also heard directly from community partners during class with migration advocates including Senior Staff Attorney Jenny Zhao from Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, Amy Somchanhmavong and the Tangs from the Ithaca Asian American Association, Executive Director Nicole Ramos from Al Otro Lado, Legal Director Tsion Gurmu from BAJI, Professor Estelle McKee, and Sociology doctoral candidate Juhwan Seo. Teaching Assistant Justin Park ’22 expertly coordinated the many moving parts of the course and brought insight to the course design.

In fall 2022, Teaching Assistant Arisa Herman ’23 joined the teaching team, contributing to class discussion and course development. Class sessions continued to mix legal theory and lived experience as community partners returned to share their personal and professional experiences and insights about the intersections of race, migration, and dispossession. In one class, “Who Gets to Move? Who Wants to Move? Asian Immigration as a Case Study,” Prof. McKee spoke about the legal and social history of Asian migration to the United States. Seo also returned, discussing his cross-disciplinary research into migration policy as it affects Asian American communities and his activism with Asian American organizations—a timely discussion as the Supreme Court heard oral argument the next week in two affirmative action cases in which Seo’s organizations submitted amicus briefs. In the second half of the class session, the Tangs returned to share their story: a highlight for many students.

“Jean and King Tang’s in-person retelling of their lived experience as two of the earliest Asian Americans to settle in Ithaca provided invaluable insight into America’s immigration system,” said Bharmal. “I expect most students in the class will remember that day even long after we graduate from law school.”

Highlighting the interactive nature of the community-engaged course, Jean Tang said she was honored to have been able to share her story with Cornell Law students. “I think [my migration story and experience] over again whenever people ask me questions,” Tang said, adding, “it’s very important to tell what people need to know about the time and the era and what it used to be. What I told was truthful to me.”

Illustrating the wide array of topics, other class speakers included Betsy Fisher with United Statelessness who discussed race, migration, and statelessness, and Professor Aziz Rana, who lectured on U.S. immigration history and settler colonialism. Obodo commented that “a full understanding of race and migration involves a deeper dive into other, intersecting disciplines and institutions such as the criminal justice system, international human rights law and sociology . . . this course is such an amazing one to take because, assuredly, you will leave it having learned something new or gained a new perspective that you didn’t have walking in.”

The seminar has also led to other related projects and opportunities. Along with the Cornell Migrations Initiative, the seminar supported two internships for Cornell Law students at BAJI where they used course concepts in conducting immigration advocacy and legal work such as asylum applications for clients from Nigeria, Guyana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lectures developed by guest speakers for the course have also been presented in other Cornell Law School seminars and Prof. Kelley-Widmer’s and McKee’s and Yale-Loehr’s immigration and asylum clinics. These relationships with partners have led to further clinic projects, such as a partnership with BAJI to create pro-se asylum materials for Black asylum seekers.

The course will continue to evolve as it engages both academic and practitioner communities in coming iterations.

“This course has allowed me to explore my practical clinical work from a wide variety of perspectives,” said Professor Kelley-Widmer, “deepening my own understanding of the interaction between race and migration while building relationships with fantastic community partners, colleagues, and law students alike.”

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