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The Immigration Clinic: Q&A with Director Stacy Kern-Scheerer

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    Navigating the Immigration Process:  The William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic is staffed by its director, Stacy Kern-Scheerer, Professor of the Practice, and, through private financial support, has welcomed an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow attorney for the 2020-21 year.  Courtesy W&M Law School
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Through the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic, students work under supervising attorneys to provide much-needed access to representation for immigrants living in Hampton Roads who have claims before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Clinic is committed to preparing the next generation of immigration attorneys for this challenging practice area and is one of the few nonprofit entities that provides pro bono representation on immigration matters in the Hampton Roads region.

The Clinic is staffed by its Director, Stacy Kern-Scheerer, Professor of the Practice, and, through private financial support, has welcomed an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow attorney for the 2020-21 year. Every semester, students in the Clinic handle a variety of matters impacting the clients served by the Clinic.

The Clinic focuses on aiding noncitizens seeking relief as victims of crime (U visa), domestic violence (VAWA and Removal of Conditions), and human trafficking (T visa) and also represents individuals claiming asylum, as well as those currently held in detention seeking release on bond, DACA holders, and individuals applying for naturalization.

How did the Immigration Clinic come into being?

Student interest really helped propel the Clinic’s establishment. Current and prospective students understandably have a lot of interest in and passion for this area of the law. Immigration law and practice is challenging, timely and extremely impactful on communities, families and individuals. The Law School recognized this interest, and took steps to secure private starting funding for the Clinic.

The Clinic’s first semester was Fall 2019. Moreover, there is a huge need for pro bono immigration legal services everywhere, and the Williamsburg area is no exception. The Clinic provides students the opportunity to use and expand their legal training while filling an unmet need in the community.

Where does the Clinic’s financial support come from?

The Clinic relies on private funding to sustain itself. I am delighted that a leadership gift from an undergraduate alumna of the university, and a pioneering social justice advocate and attorney, 

Sybil Shainwald ’48, LL.D. ’19, established the Shainwald Immigration Law Clinic Fund. We are dependent on gifts to the Fund from alumni, parents and friends to continue the Clinic’s operation.

We are currently in need of private support in order to keep our Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow, Nicole Alanko ’18, here in the Clinic next year. Given the high demand for our services, the demand in enrollment, and the intense nature of our work with the students and clients, another dedicated Clinic attorney (in addition to me) is imperative. Nothing is more critical to ensuring the Clinic’s continued success and growth.

What kind of assistance does the Clinic offer?

The Clinic provides direct representation to immigrants in Hampton Roads. Our representation focuses on humanitarian immigration protections, such as asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), U Visas (for survivors of crime perpetrated in the United States), T visas (for survivors of human trafficking), protections under the Violence Against Woman Act (VAWA), DACA, and medical deferred action.

Because the individuals, families and communities we serve have often experienced extreme harm, either in their home countries or in the United States, we are particularly committed to providing trauma-informed representation and advocacy.

We represent immigrants in their petitions before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. For individuals and families in removal proceedings, we represent them in Immigration Court, which is part of the Department of Justice.

How does word get out about the Clinic so people know where to turn?

That is a great question, because the individuals and communities served by the Clinic are often in spaces that can be difficult to find and adequately reach. Being a trusted member of the immigration advocacy network in Hampton Roads is an essential aspect of the Clinic’s mission.

Word gets out by reaching out to organizations and individuals who work with immigrants. Even before the Clinic opened its doors, I did a lot of research into organizations serving the underserved immigrant communities in our area and in Richmond. I showed up wherever I thought partners might be. In the Clinic’s first semester, one student and I called and wrote letters and emails to every potential partner organization we could identify in Hampton Roads. We reached out to domestic violence shelters, trafficking shelters, houses of worship, victim advocates, social workers, refugee relief organizations, private immigration lawyers, community leaders, anyone we thought might come into contact with individuals we are here to serve and represent. I talked to anyone who would listen! Our outreach efforts have proven effective, because we now regularly get calls and referrals from the networks and partnerships we have formed.

What was the Clinic’s first case like?

The Clinic’s first client was a young woman seeking asylum, fleeing horrific violence she experienced in Central America. She came to the United States alone as a young teenager and was held in a youth detention facility for a while before being released to a family member in our area. We are representing her in her asylum petition. She is awaiting an asylum interview, which under the current backlogs, can take years. Hers, like the vast majority of our cases, will take months, if not years, to resolve.

What coursework is a pre-requisite for students to enroll in the Clinic?

There are no pre-requisites for the Clinic. What is most important is that a student coming into the Clinic is ready to learn and is committed to working hard for our clients.

What do you want students to learn in the Clinic?

The students are given an enormous amount of responsibility in the Clinic, with close supervision and guidance from me and our incredible Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow Nicole Alanko ’18. Students have their own caseloads, but also work in assigned teams, which fosters an intra-Clinic community of support and understanding of the work we do.

In the Clinic, students gain experience with very practical lawyering skills: how to build client rapport and trust, craft interview plans, conduct interviews, work with interpreters, draft client and witness affidavits, develop a record through intentional evidence gathering, counsel clients effectively, and draft persuasive memos and briefs for submission to DHS and the DOJ.

In this Clinic, students put those skills to work in a challenging context. Many our clients are survivors of violence and trauma who have had to navigate (and continue to navigate) a great number of personal and structural barriers. The Clinic is committed to training trauma-informed advocates, which means we teach students to consider the impact of trauma on our clients at every stage of case development and preparation, from client interview planning to final trial preparation. The students also see first-hand the structural barriers to representation that our clients face, and that is often an eye-opening experience.

Clinic training also includes recognizing and mitigating the effects of secondary trauma and reflecting on professional identity. We openly discuss strategies for self-care, which are often necessary to reduce depression and burnout in our profession. I hope that – in addition to the practice skills – students learn that being an effective legal advocate is a multi-dimensional endeavor: you have to marry the practical lawyering skills with productive and informed client management, time management, teamwork, and self-care and reflection.

Can you quantify the Clinic’s impact?

In just the first three semesters of the Clinic’s existence—half of which has been under challenging COVID circumstances—Clinic students have provided more than 2,600 hours of service to the Clinic and our clients. We estimate these hours to equal approximately $395,000 of services in the private market. We anticipate that these numbers will continue to rise.

We have seen an incredible growth in the number of Clinic clients after just a few semesters. Serving more immigrants and training more students go hand-in-hand, so I am very proud of how we have expanded both the number of clients we represent and the number of students who can enroll in the Clinic in this short span of time.

A student on the Clinic’s blog mentions the endless red tape, etc. How do you cope?

Good question. The system is truly Kafkaesque at times, which can be extremely frustrating for everyone, particularly our clients. Law students and lawyers, like most people, would like institutions and systems to work logically, but that is just not the way the world works sometimes. The students see that first-hand.

Before coming to William & Mary Law, I spent 10 years on Capitol Hill. During those years, I learned how to keep an even keel when everything at work seemed to be going sideways. I learned that if you let your frustration dominate your mood and your actions, you will be twice as exhausted and no closer to resolving whatever problem your client needs you to solve. Because of what I learned, I work with the students to take the red tape in stride, and channel our frustration into even stronger determination to help our clients navigate the system.

How has the COVID pandemic changed how you do business?

The COVID pandemic has certainly brought challenges. Many Clinic clients do not have reliable access to the internet or a computer. This means that meeting with clients through programs like Zoom is often not an option, and we have to rely more on the telephone. But, as you can imagine, conducting interviews about trauma over the phone is not ideal for numerous reasons.

It has not been easy. Even when the government makes COVID accommodations, like accepting scanned signatures instead of original signatures on documents, that only helps if your client has access to the technology to enable them to send you their scanned signatures. We’ve had to be flexible and creative. Sometimes we’ve had to mask up and meet with clients in outdoor spaces—picnic tables, parking lots—to conduct interviews and sign documents. It has been a learning experience for everyone, and the students have been extraordinary throughout.

How do you get around language barriers?

It is true that translation and interpretation services are necessary in the vast majority of the Clinic’s cases. We have had to communicate with clients and other individuals who speak Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Russian and Q’eqchi (and I might be forgetting a few others!). In some situations, we partner with community organizations who have interpreters. Most of our clients primarily communicate in Spanish.

This means that students who interview these clients, receive documents from the clients’ countries, or research conditions in the home countries must work with interpreters and translation services in order to fully represent their clients. Some of our students are bilingual, but many are not. We have had volunteer and paid positions for law students who are not students in the Clinic but who have Spanish interpretation and translation skills and experience they are willing to share with the Clinic. Having reliable, consistent and skilled Spanish interpreters is particularly imperative to the Clinic.

What’s in store as the Clinic enters its third year?

Next year, I hope to continue expanding the number of students in the Clinic, which would naturally allow for an increased caseload. We are also actively working on building partnerships across campus, such as with the Office of Community Engagement, the William & Mary School of Education counseling program, and professors in other academic disciplines, to support the work of our Clinic students and our Clinic clients.

Looking a bit farther into the future, hosting conferences, becoming a host site for Citizenship Day in Hampton Roads, and engaging students with state policy advocacy are all possibilities. I have a vision of the Clinic becoming a regional leader in immigration advocacy, providing the students with exceptional practical training and serving the underrepresented in our community. With the support from alumni and friends, and the ongoing commitment of our incredible students, I am confident we can do it.

To learn more about the Immigration Clinic, visit its web page and blog.