While the pandemic has changed the nature of collaborations, Albany Law School students, faculty, staff, and alumni still found a way to work together to help asylum seekers in the largest refugee tent city on the US-Mexico Border this past fall.
Students based in Albany, the Adirondacks, southern California, and as far as Italy worked with staff from The Justice Center’s Immigration Law Clinic alongside supervising attorneys at the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP (Ballard). The teams assisted asylum seekers living in Matamoros, Mexico with asylum applications as part of Project Corazon, which is an offshoot of Lawyers for Good Government.
The collaboration was facilitated by David Fernandez ’92, of counsel at Ballard, who pitched the idea to his firm as a pro bono project with significant need. The firm immediately offered support, translators, and guidance for students from senior legal professionals.
“This work, the training that Lawyers for Good Government provides, and the support and follow up from the law school helped people feel comfortable with a difficult process during a difficult time. When I started doing this, I had a little bit of background, but there is no head start when you pick up that paper and get on the phone with a client for the first time,” Fernandez said. “Every single story was, and is, completely unique.”
“These are the kinds of partnerships that make our work within The Justice Center impactful, and they also highlight the compassion and dedication of Albany Law School alumni. We formed a solid partnership with David and his team, provided and shared resources, and made an impact,” said Professor Sarah Rogerson who is director of the Immigration Law Clinic and The Justice Center overall. “Members of the firm learned how to be effective supervisors and our students learned how to support that. We really could not have done it without them.”
“Students are passionate about the current plight of asylum seekers, and it’s wonderful that they had an opportunity to become directly involved. We are thankful that Ballard could provide resources and linguistic support for all of our students,” said Immigration Law Clinic Staff Attorney Julina Guo. “This is also a challenging project where students learned that they can impact the lives of people who need practical help. That is the heart of what being a good attorney is.”
Learning through lawyering
Most asylum cases proceed in two parts: application filing and then compiling a lengthy brief/legal argument to support the application. During that process, students learned not only about the tedium involved in the paperwork of lawyering, but they also started to grasp the deplorable conditions within the border camps, health issues that asylum seekers face, and the dangers many overcome as they flee their home countries.
Many students felt the impact of the work before even speaking with clients.
“I had one night in the clinic where I was pulling together paperwork and, I hadn’t even been on a call yet, but I saw a picture. It was a little girl. She reminded me of my niece,” Michael Rowley ’22 said of his case. “To think of her being in that situation is just heartbreaking. And that is compounded by the hundreds of thousands of kids also in the same situation. It’s unfathomable.”
“It’s a humanitarian crisis and your heart goes out to them,” Rogerson said of the situation on the border that is still being addressed today even after the change in administration. “You don’t even really understand—as a lawyer representing a client—until you’re part of the project on the ground and you see the depth of the need.”
Jacob Mantey ’22 was struck by the grace his clients displayed in spite of the hardships.
“Every time we would help—this always stuck with me—he would say ‘God bless you, I hope God makes you successful,’” Mantey said of his client. “He was a very religious man. He always had this outpouring of kindness to us. He was so grateful for the small amount of help we were giving him in comparison to his struggle. It highlights how much it means that we helped them, and it always stuck with me.”
"Perseverance,” Rowley said of what he saw most in his client. “Their ability to stay positive in a situation that doesn’t lend itself to hopefulness was the most striking thing that just made me want to stand up for them even more.”
Even though the work was difficult personally and professionally, being a part of a client’s journey toward freedom was unforgettable for many students.
“It definitely impacted me to see the conditions in Matamoros, but we had an opportunity to make a change in a very positive direction. We were a small part in a big change,” said Matthew Geiling ’22.
Sharpening remote skills
With traditional face-to-face client counseling on hold, lawyering in the virtual space was a learning experience for many and a lesson in accessing people near and far.
“At a time when we needed to shift to remote learning out of necessity, it inspired our students to think beyond the traditional model of lawyering—even remote lawyering,” Rogerson said. “This is a model that is sustainable in the long run to connect with difficult-to-reach populations.”
At first, students spoke with asylum seekers on the phone. Later, they connected through Zoom to see body language cues and facial expressions.
“Initially, working remotely posed some challenges. Since we had not met our clients and their asylum application deadlines were quickly approaching, we had to ensure our clients felt comfortable in sharing their story with someone they had just met over the phone,” said Doris Stacey Gama ‘21. “But with constant communication, we were able to overcome those challenges, and once we introduced video calls we were able to better solidify our relationship.”
With the challenging work – and everything else happening in 2020 – students and clinic staff leaned on one another for support. Guo checked in with students personally and professionally throughout the semester. She also checked in regularly with Ballard Spahr attorneys.
“Julina was the air traffic controller, the taskmaster, the keeper of anything that might fall through the cracks,” Rogerson said.
“Julina was there throughout the entire process. She made us feel like we had ownership of our cases,” Rowley said. “It was an all-around great experience, I couldn’t recommend it more to other students.”
Rogerson and Guo also paid special attention to the mental health of students.
“They do a great job of making you feel like they are your mentor and they are taking you under their wing. They also do a great job of mitigating the trauma that comes with this work.” Mantey said. “We vent about the incredible amount of emotion that goes into this work.”
“We acted as each other’s support system,” Mantey added. “I don’t think [any] one of us could have done it without each other. It was very intense and fast-paced and you really needed to collaborate well. There was a lot of good teamwork throughout the clinic. We shared what worked, what didn’t work and bounced ideas off each other. There was a real community feel about it.”
Guo also saw growth and passion in each student.
“I could really see the direct impact. I was really inspired by how seriously the students took the project and I look forward to continuing the work,” Guo said.
Inspired for the future
Fernandez, a transactional attorney by day, pointed out that even though this work isn’t his primary focus, it is making a difference.
“At the end, each family received help and empathy. This is a unique and exciting program where [law students] walk away with a ton of experience,” he said. “It’s also evolving. The opportunity and the issues that the next wave of students are going to face are going to be interesting.”
While Gama hopes to work in corporate law after graduation, doing work like this will always be a part of her life.
“I always thought I’d like to do this on the side, but seeing how attorneys like David and others at Ballard are able to do their day job and take on these cases reinforced the idea that I’m going to be able to do something like that too, even if what I do during the day is not focused on immigration law,” she said.
Rowley and others are still exploring which area of law they want to pursue, but the experiences gave him a renewed appreciation for what’s important.
“They are the most grateful, kind, understanding people. They have an appreciation of things that matter, they’re happy to be with their families and have a chance to make it better. I think we can all learn a lot,” Rowley said. “I want to make sure I’m using my degree to assist people who need the help and for whom our systems is not working."