Immigration clinics help clients through U.S. system

By Nick Stern
BridgeTower Media Newswires
News about the Trump administration’s latest moves in carrying out a speedy and relentless curtailment of immigration — via legal or illegal pathways — into the United States is at a near constant pitch.

Suffice it to say, business at the immigration clinics at Maryland’s two law schools has been brisk.

“There is so much more that is unknown now, because laws and policies are changing so quickly,” said Elizabeth Keyes, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of the school’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Asylum cases are much harder to win these days, while clients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are going through a roller-coaster ride as the administration and the courts decide what to do about the program.

As it always has, the clinic provides legal representation in cases that are otherwise difficult for local nonprofits to handle.

It’s also ramped up its community education efforts, including developing partnerships with local entities like the Centro SOL medical clinic at Johns Hopkins University, to get good information into the hands of people who are on the frontlines of working with vulnerable immigrants, she said.

But one of the biggest challenges these days for the clinic is tackling the climate of fear in the immigrant community.

Even clients with legal permanent residence worry they could lose their status at the blink of an eye — in some cases, those fears can turn out to be well-founded, Keyes said.

“The clear message from this administration is that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, are not welcome — and our work as lawyers is to push back against that, to help them gain or keep their immigration status, and to show them that there is still a side of America that welcomes and values them,” she said.

Maureen Sweeney, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law  who has directed its Immigration Clinic since 2004, said she started seeing parts of the nation begin to view immigration as a “law and order” issue in the ’80s and ’90s.

Today, that view has morphed into the complete identification of certain types of immigrants as being criminals.

And she said both sides of the debate seemed to have exacerbated the issue over time.

The result is that representing clients has become more difficult at every level — from heftier fees that can run more than $1,000, and are harder to get waived for people who can’t afford them, to longer and more difficult cases that more frequently require appeals to higher courts.

Other costs — intellectual and emotional — also are higher, while advocacy to gain more legal representation for immigrants has also become more of a focus, she said.

At the same time, Sweeney said she’s seeing more support from the community. Last summer, the school hired a new staff attorney to help with some of the clinic’s caseload, as well as other projects.

As a teacher, she said she’s seen a surge of new students since the 2016 election interested in immigration law who want to get involved with defending immigrants in court.

Immigration used to be more of a distant, abstract issue that has, with a distinct shift in political fortune, shifted to something that’s seen as vital to our democracy, she added.

“To me, that’s one of the silver linings,” Sweeney said. “People are feeling it personally in a way they never have.”

The law school students and others that support them are building out a new infrastructure that’s aiming to counter what they see as an iron-fisted approach to immigration in order to secure more legal protections for immigrants in the years ahead.

In the meantime, the clinics have a lot of work to do.

“There’s a lot of human carnage right now,” Sweeney said.