Asylum seekers seek out aid: Fledgling law clinic offers students practical experience in immigration field

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

One of Erika Riggs' best experiences during three years at Wayne State Law School may or may not have a happy ending. But she'll always know she did everything she could to help her Rwandan client find asylum.

Riggs was enrolled in Wayne Law's Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic (AILC), a student-run clinic that is also a for-credit course at the law school. In addition to a classroom component, real cases are handled by student attorneys.

"He has a very strong, but exceedingly complex, case; consequently, it could take many more months, or even years, until we receive the decision," said Riggs, who helped the client comprise a 630-page asylum application, including a personal declaration, physical and psychological evaluations, affidavits to support his account of torture, documents from Rwanda, and country condition reports.

Rachel Settlage practiced law for a number of years before she became a law professor at Wayne State Law School. As the newly opened clinic's first director, she's impressed with her students' work.

"The representation the clients get from student teams can be far more comprehensive than what they'd get generally from a normal office simply because the students only have one or two cases, and that's what they spend all their time on," said Settlage. "So they get really good, really comprehensive lawyering from the students. Students spend a lot of time in preparation, and it ends up being a really good experience both for the students and for the clients."

Riggs met regularly with her Rwandan client and sometimes his wife -- who was also tortured by the Rwandan government -- and children, to learn about their story, research the relevant law that would hopefully bring them relief, and create one, very large, document to present all of this material to an asylum officer who would make a decision as to their fate.

She and another student accompanied the client and his family, to his asylum interview in Chicago in December where they represented the man as his student attorneys. They are still awaiting a decision.

"This was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had," said Riggs, who also worked with other African clients helping draft their asylum applications, work authorizations, court motions, and other documents. And she helped draft a grievance for a client from the Ivory Coast against her previous attorney who filed her asylum application late -- which could be devastating for her case.

Each semester, the clinic takes on between eight and 10 cases, each of which is handled by a two-student team. Most teams handle one to three cases per semester.

Immigration court allows supervised students to act as attorneys if they're in a clinic. So students handle the client contact, prepare the case, and go to court, with Settlage observing.

Settlage describes the course to perspective students as a chance during law school for them to fly free and practice, with the world's largest safety net beneath them.

Most of the asylum cases are referrals from Freedom House, a shelter for asylum seekers, and other calls from all over the state. Students represent indigent or low-income clients who could not otherwise afford legal assistance, and work on such issues as visas for victims of trafficking and other crimes, relief under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Special Immigrant Juvenile visas, and Temporary Protected Status.

Asylum cases typically take years to complete.

Because the clinic just opened last year, the vast majority of the cases haven't been decided yet.

"Undoubtedly, taking the AILC was the best decision that I have made while in law school," said Riggs, 25, of Chesterfield. "Professor Settlage is a fantastic professor and mentor who pushes all of her students to do their best and get the most they can out of the clinic experience. And the clinic clients, with their own unique, and often horrific, stories to tell, inspire you to work hard to fight for them and against the injustice they suffered -- and not merely to get another good grade or pass a class."

She said that in this field of law, particularly with asylum, working hard does not translate to a tax break, a contract, or another day in court.

"It can truly mean life or death for your client," she said.

Recent Wayne Law graduate Zainab Boxwala worked on an asylum case for a client who had been denied asylum, and represented her in a 9-hour hearing before the Detroit Immigration Court. The government attorney will be calling additional witnesses and so her case will continue in November.

Boxwala is interested in practicing immigration law, so the clinic provided a more realistic perspective of what the work actually entails.

"All the clinic students worked very hard and we did everything from make copies and update the file to write 50-page legal research briefs," said Boxwala. "We learned about the law and the practice of law -- something you don't always get a chance to do in law school."

The Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic is one of seven Wayne Law client clinics that provide students with the practical experience needed to hit the ground running upon graduation. The others include the Small Business Enterprises and Nonprofit Corporations Clinic, the Disability Law Clinic, Environmental Law Clinic, Child Advocacy Clinic, Criminal Appellate Practice, and Free Legal Aid Clinic.

Published: Wed, Jun 1, 2011

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