Immigration Law Clinic-- Professor and students help asylum seekers

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Professor David Koelsch's students spend time in jail -- helping asylum seekers facing death or torture back home.

Immigrants seeking asylum on arrival at Detroit Metropolitan Airport are detained for months at Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Visiting clients takes planning and forethought. Visits must be pre-cleared days in advance. Visitors must check in with officers; limit items to avoid providing a weapon; and have contingency plans in case of problems.

"It's a unique chance for students to enter a world very different from their own," says Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, which also operates an Asylum Law Clinic.

Outside of jail visits, students serve other clinic clients -- political and religious asylum seekers, abused immigrant women, abandoned immigrant children -- and represent them before the U.S. Immigration Court or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Students recently accompanied a client to the Asylum Office in Chicago.

"These are not fun road trips with stops for shopping," Koelsch says. "We leave Detroit at 4 a.m., drive to Chicago, prep the client during the drive, endure a 2- to 3-hour intense interview, then get back in the car for the long drive home, which we're lucky to reach by midnight."

Students visit community centers, libraries and other public places in the UDM Mobile Law Office. Working with pro bono lawyers, they conduct interviews and provide legal assistance in immigration matters, applying classroom learning to real-life situations and learning to better relate to clients, Koelsch says.

"It exposes students to people they may not have met without the program and reminds them of the Jesuit value of service."

Immigration law is a busy practice area with a bright future. Immigrants are an important part of Michigan's economic recovery; with many residents leaving or retiring, many immigrants bring skills to create new businesses and employment opportunities.

"Immigration law is technically -- and intellectually -- challenging," Koelsch says.

It also becomes personal, with deep bonds and friendships forged with former clients.

"For me and my students, the best moment is when an immigrant for whom you have worked for many years becomes a U.S. citizen," he says.

In 2009, Koelsch was named Outstanding Immigration Law Professor by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, for his commitment to students. He is advisor to the UDM Immigration Law Student Association, coaches the Immigration Law Moot Court Team, and chaired UDM's Voice for Justice Auction, funding summer fellowships for ten UDM students to work for nonprofits. A competitive marathon runner, he also serves as faculty sponsor for UDM's annual Race for Justice 5K.

"Apart from gaining legal knowledge and improved practical skills, I want my students to know I'm passionate about my teaching and that they are my top priority," he says.

A Michigan State grad who earned his law degree from the Catholic University of America, Koelsch previously served as legal director with Freedom House in Detroit, a charity helping asylum seekers.

He has spent six years on the Immigration Task Group of New Detroit; served as secretary of the Michigan Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; lectures and writes on immigration law and policy; and testified before the Judiciary Committee of U.S. House of Representatives regarding immigration reform proposals.

One of the best qualities about UDM, he says, is that it teaches more than essential legal skills -- it teaches how to practice with passion, humility and grace.

In his seminar "Law and Spirituality," students explore how spiritual beliefs can help them be more effective attorneys. The seminar and UDM clinical programs present an opportunity for students to serve others and to reflect on gifts they've been given that makes that service possible.

"I try to get my students to think about the meaning of their work for themselves, for their clients and as part of the legal process," he says. "They will soon join a tough profession and a little reflection now and again could help them to keep their bearings."

Published: Tue, Jul 13, 2010

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