A clinic at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law that is addressing the lack of immigration services in Arizona by training students to help battered children obtain immigration relief has received a major award from Arizona State University.
The College’s Immigration Law & Policy Clinic will be awarded the 2007 President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness at a reception on April 11.
“This recognition is based on your project’s demonstrated excellence in identifying a community need or issue and fostering mutually-supportive partnerships between Arizona communities and ASU to implement successful solutions,” ASU President Michael M. Crow wrote in his award letter.
The Immigration Law & Policy Clinic was formed less than two years ago by Evelyn Cruz, a former Teaching Fellow at Yale Law School who was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States at age 12. Cruz was brought to the College of Law to create opportunities for students to interact with the Latino community and to develop skills to prepare them to serve Latinos and immigrants.
Patricia White, Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the work performed by Cruz and the clinic “is the very essence of community embeddedness.
“We are tremendously proud to have both Evelyn and the clinic as important parts of the law school,” White said.
Cruz has developed a curriculum that gives students a challenging experience, while helping an underserved group of immigrants – children who entered the U.S. illegally to flee from abusive homes or from persecution on the street and who, due to the nature of immigration court, have no guarantees of legal representation.
The clinic collaborates with local non-profit organizations, such as Friendly House and the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, government agencies, community advocates, other ASU departments and finance partners to identify and develop projects that address Arizona’s immigration challenges.
Under-representation is one of those issues, as only 1 percent of Arizona’s attorneys are Latino, and only 125 attorneys practice immigration law, according to the State Bar of Arizona. To that end, the clinic trained 14 law students in its first year on cross-cultural awareness, immigration law and litigation skills, pairing them with pro bono attorneys to help prepare affidavits, briefs and closing arguments. Those students performed 4,700 hours of pro bono service in just two semesters, and to date, more than 150 immigrants have received assistance from the clinic.
“In a short period of time, under Evelyn’s leadership, the students have been able to zero in on various areas of need in our community in this field, develop contacts and establish relationships with others doing similar work,” said Catherine O’Grady, a professor and executive director of the Clinical Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “They’re providing a much needed service, and it’s a wonderful accomplishment.”
The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, which provides free legal and social services to people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has benefited from the clinic’s expertise and dedication. Melissa Aryah Somers, the project’s children’s attorney, said nearly 90 percent of detained immigrants go unrepresented because they cannot afford legal counsel.
“The clinic is genuinely interested in improving the rights for immigrant children in the U.S. through innovative legal advocacy and outreach to the community about the legal challenges facing these children,” she wrote in a letter of support.
The work performed by students is rewarding, but far from easy, Somers said. “The majority of children served by the Florence project have overcome tremendous obstacles to reach the United States,” Somers wrote. “Their life stories are quite often difficult to hear, and their legal cases are challenging even for the best immigration lawyer.”
Among the six students working in the clinic this semester is Dennis Farar, a third-year law student who was part of a team that helped a 17-year-old Mexican girl receive permanent resident status in late March. She had been abused, neglected and abandoned by her family. “I’m the father of four kids, and the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, so I have a lot of family, and it hurts me to see this,” Farar said. “They come from these backgrounds, and to help them get better lives in the U.S., it’s overwhelming, just incredible.”
Before coming to ASU, Sara Giner, a second-year law student, already had decided to someday practice immigration law, because her father and his parents were political refugees from Cuba. Having helped abused children this semester in the clinic makes her goal even more worthwhile, she said.
“Working with children who are trying to get asylum or their green cards, and have had such a hard upbringing is rewarding to me,” Giner said. “I don’t want them to have to go back, and that gives me something to work for.”
For some law students, O’Grady said, the clinic affords a first glimpse at people in the community who are down on their luck and have tremendous needs, as well as gratitude.
“They start to see how difficult it is getting by on a limited income or getting around Phoenix without a car,” she said. “We hope the students will grow as people, and after graduating and beginning their practices as attorneys, they will continue to devote at least some of their time to people who need their services.”
Cruz said she appreciated Crow’s support of the clinic and the award’s focus on community connections.
“Day in and day out, working long extended hours, it’s kind of nice when someone says, `Stop. Look at me. I think you’re doing something good’,” she said.
The President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness was created four years ago to honor mutually beneficial partnerships that enhance ASU’s community engagement. Past award winners include the Arizona Bullying Prevention Partnership, Tempe Early Reading First Partnerships, Central Arizona Shelter Services’ Nursing Clinic and ASU’s College Knowledge Project.