Law students aid local residents through ND Clinic
By TIM LOGAN
Adela wants to see her children again.
That is why the 50-year-old El Salvadoran has come to the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic for help filing for permanent residency in the U.S. It is why she is sitting across the table from third-year law student Kira Lodge, telling someone she's never met before about her family and her life.
Tears run down Adela's face as she talks about her two adult children who have died in El Salvador since she came to the United States 10 years ago. She talks lovingly of the other two, whom she hopes to see again someday. Adela, whose name has been changed because her case is still pending, was granted political asylum last year by the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago, and now the Bristol, Ind., resident is beginning the two-year application process for permanent U.S. residence.
For more than a half-hour, Adela and Lodge sit at that table, going over the forms the El Salvadoran must fill out to become an American — discussing her case in Spanish, the only language Adela knows well.
This mother is one of dozens of immigrants who comes to the Legal Aid Clinic from all over Michiana each Tuesday and Thursday seeking help in navigating this country's immigration system. And Lodge is one of the student interns who gives them that help, free of charge. In return, she and other interns gain a learning experience that many call the most important of their law school careers.
The courses taught through the Legal Aid Clinic are not required for a Notre Dame law degree, nor do they focus on legal theory or historic decisions. But Legal Aid Immigration Clinic I and II do provide students who are interested in this growing field of law an opportunity to see firsthand what immigration is all about. And, along with the other classes offered through the Legal Aid program, it is one of the only chances for law students to gain experience outside the classroom.
"It adds a real perspective to the whole law school education," said immigration clinic intern Rudy Monterrosa. "It's one thing to read about it in books, but it's another to see it in your clients."
Monterrosa is a second-year law student and said the Legal Aid program was one of the main reasons he came to Notre Dame Law School. His parents are both immigrants — from Mexico and El Salvador — and after graduating next year, he wants to return to the West Coast and help immigrants make their way in the U.S.
"I saw how, for [my parents], it was a big deal to come to this country, to get a job, to get permanent residency," he said. "Seeing the whole process they went through made me want to help people to reach their American Dream."
Several students who work at the Legal Aid Clinic, which, in addition to immigration, also handles family law, consumer fraud and Social Security cases, want to enter public service law. Others see it as a good opportunity to gain experience working with clients face-to-face.
When a client comes to the Clinic, it is usually the students he sees first. Interns take down the case information and often, as Lodge does with Adela, help them through the legal process. Many times, students' language skills facilitate this guidance. Nearly all of Monterrosa's clients, for example, are Spanish speakers, and his fluency helps him to handle their cases.
After the initial intake and meeting with clients, students discuss their cases with one of the Clinic staffers — three full time and several part-time lawyers. These professionals are licensed to practice in Indiana and supervise the process throughout. But any certified student — one who has completed one-half of law school — can appear before a judge in a courtroom, so the interns gain trial experience as well. Thus the program gives law students the chance to practice law, both in the office and in the courtroom, while providing free legal services to indigent Michiana residents.
In part because of the high cost of Law School tuition — $22,630 this year — few Notre Dame Law graduates actually enter public service law, which rarely pays as well as private practice. But, Clinic directors say, students' experience in the Legal Aid program can make them better lawyers in the future.
"Even if our students don't go on to do public interest work, being here at least sensitizes them to the needs of the other half, basically," said Judith Fox, who teaches in the Clinic. "And they'll consider those things when they're taking action in whatever kind of firm they go into, and they'll be willing to take some free cases, some pro bono cases."
Lodge is one of those students. She will go to work for a firm in Phoenix, Ariz., next year and specialize in employment and labor law. But, she says, she hopes her experience at the Immigration Clinic will help her do pro bono work in that city, which has a large population of migrant workers.
"I wanted a hands-on experience," she said. "So much of law school is book learning, and this is a chance to utilize it."
Lodge has worked at the clinic since January, aiding clients in their attempts to navigate the complex U.S. immigration system. At any given time, she is helping between 10 and 15 people with such essentials as green card renewals and residency applications. Right now, one of those is Adela.
The two sit at the table, the intern translating residency forms for the client. Adela has brought with her a plastic shopping bag full of important documents. Two thick envelopes from the Chicago law firm that aided in her asylum application hold all sorts of documentation, much of it indecipherable to the Spanish speaker. But right now, it is not enough. Lodge tells Adela she must come back next week with pay stubs, her Social Security number and the names and addresses of all her employers for the last five years. All of this documentation is needed for the residency application. And that's not all.
Have you ever been a prostitute? Lodge asks the 50-year-old grandmother with curly black hair and a blue Mickey Mouse polo shirt. Have you ever been a Communist, or engaged in polygamy? These are questions on the application, and Lodge must ask them of her client. "It's kind of embarrassing," the intern says. Fortunately for her application, Adela answers no to all of these questions.
Today, with all of Adela's paperwork complete and the necessary medical exams passed, Lodge will mail the application. It will probably be at least two years before Adela receives a reply. The U.S. government grants approximately 50,000 permanent residencies each year to asylum cases, but, given the high volume of applicants, it can take several years to process the paperwork.
Cutting through the voluminous red tape of immigration law and helping people find their way to a better life in America motivates some of the immigration interns. Sean O'Brien is a second-year law student who has handled more than 100 Clinic cases, including those of refugees from war-torn nations on the other side of the world.
Recently, O'Brien helped an ethnic Hungarian from Serbia and his daughter win asylum in the U.S. The man was conscripted to fight for the Serb army during that country's war with Bosnia, but as an ethnic Hungarian, he frequently faced threats and discrimination from his officers. He was forced to wear a different uniform, O'Brien says, so that his fellow soldiers would know to shoot him if he tried to desert. His farm was burned and his daughter assaulted three times by Serb men before the two fled to the United States. Had the pair not received asylum, they would have been sent back to Serbia.
O'Brien says that often the most powerful part of his work is interviewing the clients to compile their stories for the asylum hearing.
"You have to help the client tell their story before a judge," he said. "You have a glimpse of what it must be like. You get a glimpse all of a sudden of how real it is."
Dealing with real clients and helping them in real situations has been a hallmark of the Clinic since its 1966 beginning as a student group founded to work for prisoners' rights at the state penitentiary in Michigan City, Ind. In the Clinic's early years, students also helped defend indigent clients in Michigan, but now it handles only civil cases. It has grown substantially since 1990, when current co-directors Barbara Szweda and Eileen Doran were hired, and the Clinic took on a teaching component. The pair set up the office like a normal law practice, and the University moved it to the current location — a white, two-story house at 725 Howard Street, one block from Notre Dame Avenue and a short bike ride from the Golden Dome.
In 1995, the Immigration Clinic was founded after a Sri Lankan came to the Clinic for help obtaining residency. A local priest soon started directing Central Americans there for assistance, Szweda said, and the immigration specialty took off. Now it accounts for 40 percent of the office's caseload.
There are several large immigrant communities in South Bend, according to Szweda, and some members of these communities need help getting asylum, or refugee status, from their home countries. Rwandan and Serbian refugees who fled the fighting in those countries in the mid-'90s are common, as are Mexicans and Central Americans who have come north to find jobs.
The remaining 60 percent of cases deal with civil disputes ranging from domestic violence to consumer fraud. Most of these are tried at St. Joseph County Court in South Bend. According to Szweda, the Clinic only has the resources to take on approximately one-fifth of the clients who contact it.
"Because there are not a lot of legal services for the poor, we're in demand," she said. The Clinic does not have a lot of lawyers, and those who do work there generally specialize in certain fields. These are two major reasons the Clinic turns away customers, but even so, the office usually has more than 300 cases active at any one time.
There is one other free legal aid clinic in South Bend, but it handles much of Northern Indiana, and Notre Dame's is the only one that provides immigration services.
Clinic directors say the clientele teaches the future lawyers something about life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder as well.
"Most of our students are upper-middle-class kids, and many of them had no idea that people were living in the conditions that our clients were living in," Fox said. "They just had no idea that this world was out there. In exposing our students to this, it helps them understand things better. Hopefully, exposure to our clients and the kind of work they do will help them become better lawyers, and better people."
In a few weeks, Lodge will graduate from Notre Dame and head to Phoenix, Ariz., to prepare for the bar examination and to start practicing law. Adela will still be in Bristol, awaiting a response to her application and hoping to see her children again some day. In the fall, a new class of students will work at the Immigration Clinic and, every day, new waves of clients will come to the white house on Howard Street.
When Adela's interview with Lodge is over and the two have set up an appointment to meet next week, the older woman gathers her papers and stands up from the table. She smiles at Lodge and thanks her, and the two embrace.
"Obviously, [Adela has] had a hard life," Lodge said later. "She works hard to make a living. She's got a family she cares about. She's no different than anyone else."
All News Stories for Monday, May 1, 2000