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A Vietnamese man facing deportation because of a 15-year-old crime for which he already served time is finding an unlikely ally in a Russian immigrant. Yulia Garteiser, a third-year law student at Stanford University, is one in a growing corps of law students who are part of immigration clinics countrywide plugging an ever-gaping hole in the legal system.

“It’s comparable to residents in hospitals who learn by doing,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, who heads the new Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford University.
Students like Garteiser meet with clients, investigate facts, interview witnesses, prepare declarations, and even appear in court. The need, says Srikantiah, couldn’t be greater. “Immigration is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Across the country, only about 42 percent of people caught up in immigration proceedings have legal representation. Unlike criminal cases, people hauled up before an immigration judge are not entitled to state counsel. No wonder immigrants form one of the fastest-growing population groups in prison. The caseload at courts like the 9th Circuit are now 40 percent immigration-related. But immigrants have very few places to go for pro bono legal advice.

Immigration law, once considered a specialized field, is becoming increasingly mainstream. When James Smith started an immigration clinic at U.C. Davis in 1981 to help asylum seekers fleeing wars in Central America, it was one of the only clinics of its kind in the country. Now Smith estimates there are 30 to 40 such clinics nationwide, from North Carolina to New York to Arizona.

The first big spurt of immigration clinics came after an overhaul of immigration laws in 1996. “It’s impossible to overstate its draconian impact,” Smith says. “It had the effect of railroading immigrants out of the country and severely truncated the authority of immigration judges to grant relief.” Nancy Morawetz helped start the immigration clinic at NYU in response to the 1996 act. “But if 1996 was the watershed, 9/11 changed the overall enforcement climate,” Morawetz says. Deportations ratcheted up sharply, for example, instead of being limited to occasional workplace raids. Now the NYU clinic also works with special registration cases—male Muslim immigrants asked to report to Homeland Security from December of 2002—and is helping the Sikh Coalition plan for any renewed anti-immigrant backlash.

The silver lining in this harsh spotlight on immigrants has been law students’ increased interest in the issue. Garteiser studied law in Russia, but had never done any immigration work. “In the U.S. I saw how language prevented immigrants from accessing legal help,” Garteiser says. Her fellow student Sonya Sanchez’s family has lived in New Mexico for 12 generations. But she grapples with immigrant stereotypes every day. “I went for an interview with a law firm here,” Sanchez says. “And the woman at the front desk asked if I was here to deliver tamales.”

The interest students like Garteiser and Sanchez have in immigration is evident from the wait list at the clinics. “We used to once drum the hallways to get 10 to 12 students,” says Smith at Davis. “Now we are oversubscribed.”

The reasons are not hard to find. “This is cutting-edge legal work,” says Morawetz at NYU. “These are the most pressing issues of our day.”

The effects of the clinics are already being felt. The USC Annenberg immigration clinic has five cases pending before the 9th Circuit Court, says clinic director Niels Frenzen. His clinic takes on 30-40 cases, and has won most, at least in the initial rounds. “Students can see first hand how their work might change how an immigration judge sees a case,” Frenzen says.

For resource-strapped community-based organizations, clinics have been a boon. “This is really a service learning model,” says Sheila Chung of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, who worked with the Stanford students. “They are getting education with a strong focus on what’s really important to the community.”

Some in academia might worry that clinics like these are turning students into activists. Srikantiah, who worked on high-profile cases with the ACLU before joining Stanford, does not shy away from her activist roots. “It’s true that immigrants targeted for deportation might have some old criminal conviction, and so they don’t draw the sympathetic view of the public at first,” says Srikantiah. “But as you get to know a person, you realize that they are so much more than their criminal conviction.”

The hope, Srikantiah says, is that a semester in the field working on real cases will stay with the students, even if they don’t go full time into immigration law. Alumni from NYU’s clinics are now at organizations like the ACLU and the National Immigrant Law Center.

Stanford’s Garteiser wants to go into immigration law. Sanchez, the first in her family to go to college, doesn’t know if she can be in public interest law and support her grandmother. But she knows she will always do some pro bono work. She realized that the day she did her first client interview.

“She went out of her way to clean her house just because she was so happy someone was taking an interest in her,” says Sanchez. “I realized I was in a small way helping her regain some control of her life. I was glowing afterwards.”

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is a PNS editor and hosts UpFront, New California Media’s radio show on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco.