New law center to help immigrants

A $4.5 million grant will fund The Center for New Americans at the University.
June 05, 2013

The University of Minnesota Law School will expand its immigration law programming this fall to meet increased demand for representation.

The Robina Foundation pledged Thursday to give almost $9 million to the law school — one of the largest gifts in the school’s history — to fund its Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice and create a Center for New Americans.

Law School Dean David Wippman said the immigration law center will help immigrant groups who often can’t afford legal assistance and can have difficulty navigating the legal system.

“This will be great for the community,” said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.

Fahia said Somali immigrants often have trouble finding lawyers who do pro bono work. 

The number of foreign-born Twin Cities’ residents increased by about 100,000 people from 2000 to 2010. About 10 percent of the population was foreign-born in 2010, according to Minnesota Compass, a part of the nonprofit organization Wilder Research.

Many immigrants face income and language barriers, said Cathy Haukedahl, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid — a pro bono collaborator that will work with the center to provide expertise in civil legal issues to immigrants.

“Minnesota has a lot of immigrants who need help in their own language,” she said.

Partnering with three local law firms and three nonprofit organizations, the law school will work to expand essential legal services for immigrant communities and improve the laws affecting immigrants.

“By working together, all of us will be able to accomplish considerably more than we could working separately,” Wippman said.

The new center will have three new clinics focusing on education and outreach, detainee rights and federal litigation, in addition to the already existing asylum law clinic, Wippman said.

One of the goals of the new center is to give law students more clinical opportunities and real-life work experience, Wippman said.

“Law students will get wonderful opportunities to work with actual clients while they’re still in law school,” Wippman said.

There are many individuals in detention both nationally and in Minnesota who can’t afford attorneys, said Benjamin Casper, director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota’s Pro Bono Litigation Project — one of the nonprofits collaborating with the center.

On any given night, Casper said there can be up to 300 immigrants held in county jails by the Department of Homeland Security.

“[The center] will give a voice to detained immigrants and their families,” Casper said. “[Detention of non-citizens] causes extraordinary hardships for those families.”

Since immigration law reform is making its way through Congress, Wippman said it seemed like a great time to set up the center.

Casper said it could give the law school an opportunity to affect national immigration policy since new possible legislation could lead to important litigation.

Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she noticed the number of immigration law clinics around the country have been increasing to meet this demand.

“No matter how many attorneys there are out there, [immigrant communities] continue to be underserved,” Williams said.

After hiring additional faculty and teaching fellows, Wippman said the clinic will be up and running this fall but won’t reach its full strength for about a year.

Most of the $4.5 million funding for the immigration law center will go toward hiring new faculty and space costs, Wippman said, which should fund the center for its first four years.

After that, Wippman said he hopes to secure additional funding to operate the center permanently.

“It’s going to be an extraordinary opportunity for the law school and the law students,” Casper said. “It’s really going to set the University apart as a law school.”

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