July 25, 2008 — Rising third-year University of Virginia law student Phil Storey saw some of the Immigration Law Clinic’s work firsthand before he came to law school. He had helped his El Salvadoran friend, Gabriel Rivas, study for his naturalization interview, and the clinic took Rivas and his son Ernesto on as clients in 2006. Rivas hoped to keep his son in the United States because Ernesto had been threatened by gangs in El Salvador. With the clinic’s help, Gabriel was naturalized in January 2007.
“My friendship with the Rivas family and seeing the work the clinic did to help them was a big part of why I decided to go back to school mid-career and get a law degree,” Storey said. “I can help people like them, delivering legal services to those who need it but can’t afford it.”
Last semester Storey himself participated in the Immigration Law Clinic, which is run through a partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center. The experience of having direct contact with clients confirmed to Storey that this was the career he wanted to pursue. He is working for LAJC’s Immigrant Advocacy Program this summer, while continuing to work pro bono with the Rivas family. Although the clinic did not win Ernesto’s case in court, it preserved his right to apply for re-entry as an immigrant after he returned to El Salvador. Storey is working with Ernesto in El Salvador and his father here in Charlottesville to make that happen.
“The clinic gives students a chance to better understand an often misunderstood population,” said Professor Doug Ford, who leads the clinic. “As noncitizens, [immigrants] don’t enjoy all of the rights people associate with being an American.”
The immigrant community of central Virginia has grown dramatically in recent years. It’s also a population often in need of legal assistance and, just as often, without the ability to pay for it. LAJC is the place many immigrants turn for help with visa problems, asylum and related issues.
The clinic, now entering its fourth year, began in fall 2004 as a pro bono project supported by the Law School and the Richmond-based law firm Hunton & Williams. Students began receiving credit for the clinic the following year and the course has attracted rising interest among students each year since.
Ford said the program gives students relevant experience no matter what their job prospects after law school. “Immigration is permeating more federal judicial work, and many immigrants seek public interest legal help through Legal Aid or other nonprofits,” he said. Many large corporate law firms lend their pro bono efforts to public interest immigration law, Ford added.
The clinic differs from most pro bono work students do in that they work directly under a supervising attorney and have a major individual responsibility for the clients. “It’s similar to the casework experience they’ll have working directly with clients after they graduate,” Ford said.
Clinic cases aren’t confined to Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County. This past semester, clinic students were involved with cases from Harrisonburg, Richmond, the Eastern Shore, Fredericksburg, Danville and the Tidewater region.
Ameenah Lloyd, a rising third-year U.Va. student, worked on a variety of clinic cases, including ones having to do with the Violence Against Women Act; U-Visa Relief, a special visa for victims of domestic abuse; and the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which provides relief from deportation for certain Latin Americans and former Soviet bloc citizens.
At first, Lloyd found the work daunting. “These people were trusting me with their lives and that was a big responsibility that I was not sure I was qualified for,” she said. But she soon found that her training, enthusiasm and perspective made her a good advocate.
“Knowing that I was the ‘last hope’ for some of the clients made me want to work harder on their behalf,” said Lloyd, who is also working this summer at LAJC.
Former clinic student Rhonda Perkins, who graduated from the Law School in 2007, now works full time at the Richmond LAJC office and is a cooperating attorney with the clinic. She said she was always interested in issues facing immigrant workers and the undocumented community, but she had not initially planned a career in public service.
Since joining the staff at LAJC last year, Perkins continues to find public service rewarding. “The most gratifying part of my work is being able to help people who would be unlikely to find or unable to afford legal help elsewhere,” Perkins said.
Although the clinic has helped several immigrants who have settled into local communities, students and attorneys in the immigrant field know that providing sound legal advice sometimes means delivering bad news.
“The most disappointing part of my work is having to tell someone that there is nothing we can do to help them out of a very difficult situation,” Perkins said.
Sometimes people make bad financial decisions and “are taken advantage of by certain industries and individuals that prey on low-income families and non-English speaking communities,” she said. By the time clients bring these issues to the LAJC it may be too late for a legal remedy.
“All I can do is advise them on how to protect themselves from being taken advantage of in the future,” Perkins said.
Others involved in the immigrant community have praised the clinic’s efforts. Rhonda Miska, Hispanic ministry coordinator at the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, a Catholic community, said it is tremendously helpful to be able to refer people to the clinic because it’s local, financially accessible and has a Spanish-speaking staff.
“So many immigrants have questions and the population is vulnerable to scams, so to have a reputable, quality place like the Immigration Law Clinic is invaluable,” Miska said.