Law school opens clinic to help undocumented immigrants

Law school opens clinic to help undocumented immigrants
Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center and an NU law school grad, delivered the keynote address at the opening of the Immigration Justice Clinic. / Photo by Alex Melagrano

By Jenna Majeski, news correspondent

Northeastern’s law school launched a program Thursday in which students will work with undocumented immigrants to help them obtain legal status.

The celebratory event that launched Northeastern’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, or IJC, was held in the West Village F Visitor Center and featured a variety of speakers, as well as a roundtable discussion with accomplished law school graduates working in immigration law. The keynote speaker was Marielena Hincapié, a 1996 Northeastern University School of Law graduate and current executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, or NILC.

“Those of us who are privileged enough to be citizens must act. This is not a moment to sit back and watch,” she said. “These times are difficult and they’re hard but it’s also a great time to be alive. There is not a better time to be a law student. There is not a better time to be a lawyer.”

The NILC is an organization based in Los Angeles that utilizes advocacy and litigation to protect and expand the rights of immigrants in the United States, according to its website.

The law school’s dean Jeremy Paul said for many immigrants, going to IJC is their first chance to speak to someone who is legally trained to help them with these issues.

A second-year law student, Lili Giacoma, who works at the clinic, said the students are completely in charge, managing everything from research and interviews to building asylum cases.

“We have the independence to run our own cases from start to finish,” she said.

Giacoma said while students have this independence, they also have the added benefit of a university setting where they can consult professors and other law students.

Professor Rachel Rosenbloom, a co-director of IJC, said although the clinic just launched, law school students have been pushing for its establishment for years and eagerly reached out to her to get the project started. Students tracked down her email address and reached out looking to set up phone calls and meetings.

“It became very clear that they had an agenda for me, and at the top of that agenda was an immigration clinic,” Rosenbloom said.

Hincapié said the clinic’s creation was driven by President Donald J. Trump’s series of executive orders last year mandating indefinite travel and immigration restrictions to the United States from eight countries, including six predominantly Muslim states.

“A year ago, a series of executive orders closed the door for people who are coming here to seek safety, to see their families, because of their religion,” Hincapié said.

The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Trump’s travel and immigration ban later this year.

Northeastern Provost James C. Bean said in his speech that the administration decided that opening IJC was the best solution to help members of the community on campus and across Boston.

“It had to do with something that was critical to the university,” Bean said. “It had to do with experiential learning. It had to do with social justice. It was really a perfect solution.”

Bean said members of Northeastern administration are worried that some parents will not be able to attend graduation because of the president’s immigration policies.

Hincapié said she thinks institutions like the new IJC are essential because they allow undocumented immigrants access to much-needed legal counsel.

“The people at the top of the government, the people in the White House, are being led by a white nationalist agenda. We see it every day,” she said. “[They] have a blueprint. This blueprint is about changing the face of America — changing who we are, what it means to be American, who is worthy — and it is based on race and class.”

Hincapié said the Trump administration’s repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was another reason she thinks IJC is so important. DACA, an Obama-era policy which will expire in March, affords legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.  

She told event attendees about a DACA-enrolled student from San Diego whose parents were afraid to visit her in the hospital after she was critically injured at a protest last year. Hincapié said the student’s parents, who were not protected by DACA, worried about being caught at one of the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints operated in San Diego and deported.

Hincapié said many undocumented families are also afraid of taking their children to the doctor, and many children are unable to focus in school because they do not know if their parents will still be home when they get there.

“Not only is that un-American, it’s inhumane,” Hincapié said.

She said she thinks the current political climate makes this the best time to take action.

“We’re in a pivotal moment in our history,” Hincapié said. “There is a resistance. There is a legal resistance, and the Immigrant Justice Clinic is part of that resistance.”

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