Students explore public defender and immigration law careers over spring break

Over spring break, Anna Occhipinti ’19 watched a murder trial, tried to track down witnesses, and met with clients in jail. “While I had met with clients before [in impact litigation clinics],” says Occhipinti, “I hadn’t worked on looking at the theory of the case, looking at ‘How can we get this dismissed?’”

The experience has had an effect on her career aspirations, Occhipinti says. “I thought that I more wanted to be on an impact litigation side, but this experience definitely changed that,” she says. “I thought the system was so broken that you have to fight it with case law, but there really are a lot of ways that you can impact people. It’s an interesting legal puzzle, and a lot more fast-paced and interesting than I thought it would be.”

Students on alternative spring break
Anna Occhipinti '19, Sidra Mahfooz '18, Joseph Vandegriff '19, Matt Novak '20, Andy Lang '18

Occhipinti was one of 10 NYU Law students who participated in this year’s Alternative Spring Breaks , service-oriented trips organized by students. One group of five students, including Occhipinti, shadowed attorneys at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office in Charlotte, North Carolina, for five days, while a second group assisted adults and children in Florence, Arizona, facing immigration removal proceedings.

Students on the public defense trip to Charlotte helped attorneys with their cases in a variety of ways and got a taste of what it was like to work as a public defender. Occhipinti, who organized the trip, watched a video of a client speaking with police in order to note what the individual disclosed and to time stamp important moments, such as the client’s confession. She and two other students conducted legal research to develop theories for the case. One group of students accompanied investigators as they tried to track down witnesses, while another student looked for clues at a murder site and took statements from witnesses. Students also participated at an expungement screening, examining people’s criminal records to determine whether there is a good chance that convictions can be expunged.

Students on alternative spring break
Nahuel Fefer '20, Frank Ungerer '18, Margo Cowan of Keep Tucson Together, Katherine Herold '20, Melina De Bona '19.

Students on the Florence, Arizona, trip began with a three-day experience with BorderLinks, a nonprofit organization that leads workships and tours focusing on immigration issues at the border. They walked desert trails typically traveled by migrants to understand the difficulty of the trek, witnessed migration-related court proceedings, and met with community members, activists, and academics in Tucson to learn more about the political and social circumstances that lead to migration. Next, students spent five days working with the Florence Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants facing removal proceedings.

Melina De Bona ‘19, who had participated last year in an Alternative Spring Break trip and worked with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project at one of the largest family detention facilities in the country in Dilley, Texas, says that the Florence trip offered a valuable opportunity to explore the intersection between the migrant identity and racial, gender, and other identities.

“The most meaningful experience on the trip for me was meeting with people currently detained at the Florence Detention Center,” says Jonathan Greenspan ’20. “It is one thing to read the statistics about immigration detention and the conditions there, but speaking with a person actually living through that is a much more personal experience.”

After meeting with individuals in detention, the students each wrote personal messages for moral support and also official letters of support for the detainees’ immigration cases.

“I knew before going to law school that I wanted to practice immigration law, so this has only strengthened that commitment,” says Greenspan.

Posted April 13, 2018