Immigrant Rights Clinic, at 15, is a major force for social justice

Omar Jadwat '01, Sam Brooke '06, Nancy Morawetz '81, Julie Mao '11 and Jordan Wells '13

Capping its 15th year, the Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC) celebrated a round of major achievements and finds need for its work growing. Its influence is growing as well. With a crisis in child migrants crossing the US-Mexico border and continued debate over the proposed DREAM Act, immigration issues remain in the national spotlight, and the IRC has been fighting for immigrants on several fronts. In the last year, the clinic halted several deportations, filed a petition urging New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities to lower the cost of phone calls from the state’s correctional facilities, and issued several reports, including a groundbreaking one bringing to light the conflict between New York’s post-conviction relief laws and the deportation machinery at US Immigrant and Customs Enforcement, a report on the rapid expansion of local immigration enforcement in Georgia, and a report on the need for courts to issue stays of removal to protect immigrants who face obstacles to return if they prevail in their cases. 

Led by founder Nancy Morawetz ’81 and co-director and IRC alum Alina Das ’05, the clinic has trained a legion of lawyers that, according to many in the field, serve as a mainline of lawyer advocates for both the local and national immigrant rights community. “We started the clinic with this model that says you need to train the students to think as social justice lawyers, with projects that extend over a greater period of time and have a lasting impact,” said Morawetz, noting that her students represent individuals and community organizations at all levels of litigation—from immigration court to the Supreme Court. “We hope our students will be versatile lawyers who can be responsive to advocacy groups and think at the systemic level as well as being the best lawyer for their individual clients.”

"Our students are deeply committed to advancing justice for immigrant communities,” said Das. “Together with our clients, they demonstrate how the law may be used to push back against the broken deportation and detention system in this country and to support community organizing on these issues."

Not only have immigrant rights clinics at Yale, Stanford, and elsewhere emulated the IRC’s model, but IRC alumni have also founded and joined clinics at a number of law schools. Annie Lai ‘06, an IRC alum who is now a director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at University of California, Irvine, said that the IRC has become an influential national player in the immigrants’ rights field, and likened its impact to that of organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. One reason why IRC alums are such effective advocates: the strong professional ties that they forge as clinic students working with a broad network of organizations that serve immigrants. “It's those professional contacts with organizations that are really good for launching immigrant rights careers,” said Lai.

In July Morawetz reunited with four IRC alums at an American Immigration Council Litigation Meeting. One of those alums, Omar Jadwat ’01, now senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Rights Project at the ACLU, joked that he was surprised Morawetz didn’t run into more former students at the conference. Clinic alums have such a tremendous presence that, said Jadwat, “oftentimes I can look around a room and a third of the people in the room have come through the clinic.” And, he added, “if you meet folks that come through the IRC, you know you share with them an intense experience.”

Posted September 22, 2014