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Faculty Spotlight

Neighbors Helping (New) Neighbors: A Conversation with Prof. Sarah Rogerson, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic

Sarah Rogerson

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As worldwide interest in the immigration policies of the United has increased, so too has local interest in the Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School: more students are enrolling; the immigrant and refugee population is expanding; and news of the Clinic's life-changing work is spreading through communities and the media.  

This past summer, the Immigration Law Clinic joined a coalition to aid migrants who were detained at the southern U.S. border and transported to the Albany County Correctional Facility. The response to the sudden influx, in cooperation with Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, came to be known as the Detention Outreach Project. Though the project is ongoing, albeit at a smaller scale than the initial triaging of 300-plus migrants, it has earned several accolades in and outside legal circles.

Professor Sarah Rogerson has led the Immigration Law Clinic—part of the larger Law Clinic and Justice Center—since its launch nearly four years ago and has been one of the main organizing forces behind the Detention Outreach Project. We recently caught up with Professor Rogerson to discuss the important work of the Immigration Law Clinic, the latest on the Detention Outreach Project, the root of her passion for immigration law, and more.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I'm a first-generation lawyer in my family, which is a source of pride but also presents challenges. I grew up all over the Midwest as the daughter of a Lutheran minister. My father's example of community service is one that I have always wanted to emulate personally and professionally. Law school brought me to Newark, New Jersey, which was the first major city I had ever lived in as an adult. I learned more about community organizing and service from the citizens of Newark than I did in any law school classroom. I also had the privilege of working on now-Senator Cory Booker's mayoral campaigns. Between the Gore/Bush electoral controversy and 9/11, it was a very interesting and challenging time to be in law school. Many of the roads that brought me to Albany began in Newark.

When and how did you realize that immigration law was your calling?

I took the clinic in my last semester of law school and represented an asylum-seeker from the Republic of Congo. Formerly a successful politician, he arrived in our clinic shoeless and battling malaria. Even worse, he had lost his wife and children to brutal violence and had suffered extreme torture in captivity before escaping. My partner and I spent many late nights in the clinic trying to find as much evidence as we could to back up his claim to asylum. I found out that we had won the case when my client called in the middle of a bar prep course. It was a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life. My passion for this work was further cemented when I became the asylum attorney at a legal services organization in Dallas, Texas. It was difficult, but exceptionally rewarding work. Lately I have felt a new calling to collaborate with law enforcement to restore humanity to our deportation mechanisms. The immigration policies of the current administration over the last two years—which I would describe as restrictive and extremely harsh and anti-humanitarian—have really cemented my resolve to educate and inspire future immigration attorneys in this particularly difficult moment.

You've been the director of Albany Law School's Immigration Law Clinic since its inception in 2015. What services does the Immigration Law Clinic provide and how have students responded to this work?

The Immigration Law Clinic primarily provides free legal services to undocumented immigrants who are seeking a lawful path to citizenship based on certain humanitarian grounds such as asylum, domestic violence, or special visas for unaccompanied children and crime victims. Students have also worked on Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals of cases with negative outcomes, which are unfortunately a growing part of our docket. The intensity and depth of student interest and participation in the Immigration Law Clinic has been overwhelming from the very start. Many students who take my clinic have been personally impacted by our country's immigration laws and feel compelled to do the work. It has been very rewarding as an educator to work with such eager and dedicated students.

How did the Detention Outreach Project come about and what can you tell us about its current status? How are Albany Law School's students getting involved?

The seeds of the Detention Outreach Project were actually planted by students five years ago when a group of pro bono students approached me about providing legal information to the detainees held at the county jail. The project grew and grew and by the time we were faced with the crisis of over 300 asylum-seekers from the border arriving in Albany over a span of eight days, we had a thriving partnership with The Legal Project, the New York Immigration Coalition and the Albany County Sheriff's Office, which made our crisis collaboration so effective. Currently, there are fewer than 60 detainees being held at the jail, in part, due to the coordinated legal interventions of the DOP. Many people have been released to pursue their asylum claim in different parts of the country and our success rate for the Credible Fear Interview stage is well over 80 percent and much higher than the national average. Students in the clinic last semester played a critical role in interviewing recent arrivals, checking in with those that had received positive or negative results of their interviews, and providing general legal information about the detention and immigration process. In addition to students, faculty and alumni have been very involved as well, which has really been very moving to see this community come together to support these individuals, many of whom presented themselves lawfully at a point of entry at the border and were detained anyway.

What other projects or cases are Immigration Law Clinic students working on?

It seems like every other day there is a major announcement about immigration law and/or policy. In addition to their casework, the students have been educating community partners and groups with questions about all of the changes and how they may impact immigrants in the Capital District. Last semester, the students presented to a non-profit working to assist individuals with their public utilities bills and to a group of social workers and other professionals from a county child welfare office.

You're known to be a big fan of podcasts. Any recommendations?

I highly recommend "The Daily" by the New York Times to keep on top of breaking news stories. Students would also be wise to check out the "Miranda Warnings" podcast by the New York State Bar Association. For some more easy listening, I love "Design Matters" by Debbie Millman. It's one of the longest-running podcasts and includes conversations with some of my favorite people, including the performance artist Marina Abramović and author Brené Brown.