In Fall 2015, the Immigrant Rights Project began its 10th year serving the immigrant community in Tulsa and eastern Oklahoma. Over the course of a decade, students enrolled in the clinic, under the supervision of Professor Elizabeth McCormick, have represented hundreds of vulnerable clients from around the world in immigration matters, including matters in the Houston Asylum Office, the USCIS District Office in Oklahoma City, Immigration Courts in Oklahoma City, Dallas, and San Antonio and the Board of Immigration Appeals. The students’ clients have included asylum seekers, trafficking victims, unaccompanied children, and victims of domestic violence and other crimes. In addition to their work in the Tulsa community, students have also worked with detained clients in remote detention centers without access to local representation and succeeded in obtaining the clients’ release from custody to enable them to return to their families and pursue their legal claims without the burdens and isolation of detention.
The clinic’s practice has evolved since 2006 to respond to the needs in the Tulsa community, as well as to urgent needs brought on by events and circumstances elsewhere. In 2011, clinic students joined in an effort to prevent the removal of detained Haitian nationals after the United States government announced the resumption of removals to Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake. Clinic students worked successfully to block the removal of their clients to Haiti at a time when the Haitian government and humanitarian aid organizations working in Haiti were overwhelmed by the needs of thousands of Haitians living on the streets in horrific conditions, severe food shortages and a deadly cholera outbreak.
In late summer 2012, after the Obama administration announced the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program providing limited immigration relief to certain unauthorized immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children, clinic students organized and engaged in a number of community education programs and pro se legal clinics to respond to an urgent need for both education and assistance related to DACA.
Last spring, clinic students participated in a pro bono project to provide representation to immigrant women and children held at Karnes County Residential Center, a privately run immigrant detention facility located 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Originally intended to house men only, the facility opened its door to women, children, and families in August 2014, partly in response to a dramatic influx of Central American refugees at the Texas border that summer. During a spring break trip to south Texas, clinic students, faculty, staff and volunteers worked with more than sixty detained families conducting intake interviews, preparing detained asylum seekers for credible fear interviews and asylum hearings, and preparing bond reduction motions. Students also successfully represented clients in bond hearings in San Antonio Immigration Court.
In Fall 2015, clinic students continued the tradition of representing clients from around the world seeking protection from persecution and other harm. Teams of students worked with clients from Guatemala, Vietnam, Egypt, Belize, and the Gambia to prepare their applications for relief. In each case the work involved hundreds of hours of client and witness interviewing, fact investigation, country conditions and legal research, legal drafting, planning and strategizing to put together a complete and compelling petition for relief.
In addition to the heavy work load, students also developed tools to deal with the emotional toll that often comes from working with clients who have experienced significant trauma and who may fear additional harm if their immigration petition is not granted, within the context of a system where the stakes are high and the odds of success are slim. As Jean Roof (JD ’16) noted: “Clinic has opened my eyes to the true injustice non‐citizens face when seeking asylum and other related forms of relief in the United States. Admittedly, I have known for some time that our immigration system is flawed. But I did not understand the true magnitude of the problem until this semester. In spite of my frustration with the immigration system, I remain optimistic that we can band together, advocate, and eventually effectuate change.”
Acknowledging that even the most dedicated and talent advocates are not always successful, Josh Donaldson (JD ’15) reflected: “My client is not always going to be successful, and, often times, there won’t be much that I could do differently to change that. A continued thought for myself, and possibly the rest of the class, as we enter the practice of law–how do we funnel this motivation while at the same time handling the emotions that come along with being invested in a client’s case in a manner that is healthy for our long-term mental health?”
It is the nature of the US immigration system that many months, and sometimes even years, might go by between the time a petition for immigration status is filed and a decision on the petition is reached. In the decade since students began representing clients in the Immigrant Rights Project, several hundred clients have been granted some form of legal immigration status and many more clients are waiting to have their petitions decided. Over the last few semesters, many clinic students have worked with dedication in their representation of clients whose petitions for relief are pending or will soon be filed, but those outcomes won’t be known for many months, or even years due to extraordinary backlogs in the immigration system. Regardless of the outcome though, clinic students all provide a tremendous service to clients who might otherwise be without representation and whose stories might otherwise not be told.