For some University of Minnesota Law School students, the stress and power of being responsible for another person’s life can be overwhelming.
Second- and third-year law students can enroll in The Immigration and Human Rights Law Clinic, a course that makes them certified student attorneys with the power to help clients seek asylum and undocumented immigrants stay in the country.
Lindsey Greising, a former student attorney and now student director with the clinic, said it’s an experience she’ll never forget.
“It’s something you can’t get out of your system,” Greising said.
At the start of the year, students are placed in teams of two and matched with a client trying to seek asylum in the U.S. Many students grapple with the fact that if asylum and the appeals are denied, their clients will be deported and possibly beaten, tortured or sometimes killed, they said.
Immigrants can seek asylum in the U.S. if they are able to prove to a judge they are being persecuted by their native governments for ethnic, racial, religious, political or social affiliation.
Jennifer Singleton, also now a student director with the clinic, said she remembers how nervous she was before her client’s hearing.
“A colleague and I tried to calm down by thinking of the worst-case scenario — something that typically works to calm your nerves,” she said. “But we knew that the worst-case scenario for our client was she goes home, gets tortured and is detained by her own government.”
Singleton said students have to learn to balance their professional client relationships with personal feelings and emotions.
The sometimes intense experience gives students a very unique experience, said professor Stephen Meili, the supervising attorney for the clinic.
Meili said students interview clients frequently, research and write legal documents, and receive courtroom experience in asylum and detainment court.
“As law students, we really want to be able to practice what we study,” said Claudia Ochoa, who was a student attorney with the clinic last year.
“In the courtroom, the judge would say something and my client would turn to ask me for advice, not the professor, like I was the real lawyer,” said Greising, who now oversees second-year students through the process.
Apart from working with asylum cases, student attorneys represent undocumented immigrants in detainment court in Bloomington, Minn. One day, they each accompany a detainee to court on the day when immigrants learn if they’ll be deported.
The pro bono clinic works together with The Advocates for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization that refers asylum cases to the clinic and provides counsel as well.
The clinic affords practical courtroom opportunities, but Ochoa said it is very demanding.
“It’s so intense. You feel that if you fail, you not only fail yourself as a person, you fail another human being. If they get sent back to that country, they may die,” said Ochoa.
Ochoa said she most likely won’t practice immigration law. But the clinic doesn’t deter all students.
Kevin Lampone, another clinic student director, isn’t sure he’ll practice immigration law full time, but said he knows he’ll definitely help immigrants after he leaves the University.