Immigrant populations in the U.S. continue to grow. In Virginia alone, the Hispanic population has increased over 90% in the last decade, and many of these individuals come from population groups with acute legal needs.
Launched last year, the Citizenship and Immigration Program (CIP) at Washington and Lee University School of Law focuses on resolving legal disputes related to immigration and naturalization. Students working in the program represent individuals before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice in order to obtain immigration benefits such as permanent residence, citizenship, asylum, and relief from deportation.
"Immigrants in general have particular difficulty in accessing legal representation," says Aaron Haas, director of the program. "Language barriers, the inability to afford private attorneys, lack of legal understanding and sophistication, and distrust of the legal system generally, all contribute to this problem. This is even a greater issue in south and central Virginia where, despite the growth of immigrant populations, there remains a lack of private immigration attorneys and non-profit organizations willing and able to serve the immigrant population."
During the first full year of operation of the CIP, 11 students participated in the program, part of the School's general externship program and third-year curriculum. In all, students handled 25 immigration cases, including requests for asylum, special juvenile cases, and deportation proceedings. This included representation in an appeal before the Board of Immigration Appeals, a body that hears oral argument in roughly 25 cases a year out of the thousands that are filed.
"Our clients primarily come from Central America, and the cases are typically asylum claims related to child abuse or politically motivated gang violence," says Haas. "Last year, we also handled an asylum case involving someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was persecuted due to reporting government and military corruption."
Students also served clients from Canada, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, the Philippines and Egypt.
To build the program, Haas reached out to churches, shelters, non-profit agencies and the private bar in order to develop a varied caseload. In addition to the asylum cases, students handled five special immigrant juvenile cases. In such cases, minors who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents can petition for permanent residency in the U.S. W&L law students argued these cases in Roanoke, Lynchburg and Richmond and these residency applications are currently pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In addition to the juvenile cases, students in the program worked on five cases involving domestic abuse victims applying for permanent residency. Representation is ongoing in two deportation proceedings, where expulsion from the U.S. is being challenged for special circumstances.
The service area for the program in Virginia is quite large, and last year students worked on cases from as far south as Danville all the way to Winchester. Haas, who received his J.D. from Harvard and spent several years following law school working on immigration cases for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in San Antonio, hopes to continue the expansion of services in the coming years.
"We intend to improve the provision of translation services so students can communicate with their clients efficiently," says Haas. "We would also like to handle more pro bono appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals, as many immigrants around the nation are unrepresented in this area."