By Olivia Klein
Gina Starfield ‘22 is the recipient of the 2022 David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award. She is celebrated for her outstanding contributions to the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, in both the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) and the Harvard Law Immigration Project (HIP).
The award honors David Grossman ‘88, the late clinical professor and faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau who devoted his life to the pursuit of justice. Throughout his professional life, Grossman strengthened partnerships within the community, served as a dedicated mentor to clinical students, and relentlessly advocated for social change. In Grossman’s spirit, each year the award is given to a student who exemplifies excellence in representation and policy reform projects and brings a clear thoughtfulness and compassion to their practice.
Since arriving at Harvard Law School, Starfield has shown a commitment to immigrants’ rights that has only grown throughout her legal education. “I entered law school devoted to bringing about a more just world, particularly for immigrants,” she says. “As a daughter of South African immigrants, I have long been interested in immigration and the role of law in immigrants’ lives. Bedtime stories told of the Soweto student uprising and my mother’s days as an anti-apartheid activist. My inherited insight into the world of ethnic conflict and migration ignited a passion to understand prejudice and eradicate it.”
Starfield joined HIP as a 1L, working on the Immigration Services Project to help a client successfully file his green card application. The following year, Starfield became the co-director of HIP’s Policy Project, leading projects including writing public comments on proposed regulatory changes and drafting a report on climate change migration. As co-president of HIP this year, Starfield used her leadership abilities and organizational skills to orient new students and ensure that all projects ran seamlessly.
A s a 2L, Starfield jumped at the opportunity to join HIRC, where she remained as an advanced student for three subsequent semesters. Clinical Professor Sabi Ardalan ’02 said: “In the clinic, unlike most students, Gina tackled multiple cases involving a diverse array of legal protections, including asylum, withholding of removal, protection under the Torture Convention, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, among others – all within her first month at the clinic. With all of these cases, she had to contend with learning complicated new areas of law, while at the same time balancing client crises and needs, and she did so flawlessly.”
“Working at HIRC and HIP has been the highlight of my Harvard Law School experience,” says Starfield. “I am extremely grateful for the expert mentorship and support I received from the clinical faculty at HIRC, in particular from Cindy Zapata and Sabi Ardalan. Most of all, I feel fortunate to have worked with strong, kind, and resilient clients. It is their courage and tenacity that I wish to spotlight through this award.”
In the clinic, Starfield worked tirelessly on individual and systemic cases, proving herself to be a committed and compassionate advocate. Starfield has been dedicated to fighting for justice for women who have experienced medical abuse at the Irwin County Detention Center. Her work with these clients has included interviews about their experiences in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, drafting of habeas petitions and temporary restraining orders, filing of T-Visa and U-Visa applications, and preparing clients for interviews and hearings. Out of this work, Starfield co-authored a cutting-edge report profiling the first-hand stories of women who survived the Irwin medical abuse. This report was generated as part of the Irwin County Detention Center Project, a collaboration among six law school clinics, which received the 2021 Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project from the national Clinical Legal Education Association.
“Having worked in the U.S. immigration, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems, and in immigration systems in the United Kingdom and South Africa, I have seen the law oppress and discriminate, further victimizing those who have experienced abuse, trauma, and neglect,” says Starfield. “Nonetheless, I return to the law as an instrument for justice. HIRC has been the place where my fears and frustrations with the immigration system are met with understanding and acceptance.”
Starfield spent the winter 2021 term on an independent writing project about family detention during COVID-19, resulting in a research paper published in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. Nominators Ardalan and Clinical Instructor Cindy Zapata wrote, “In all of our years at HLS, never have we encountered a student more self-motivated to research and write an in-depth research paper. The final piece reflects Gina’s superb analytical ability and writing skills.”
Starfield built on her education in immigrant legal advocacy during her 1L summer, spent with Al Otro Lado, and her 2L summer, spent with The Legal Aid Society.
“It’s hard to think of something that Gina hasn’t worked on,” Ardalan and Zapata reflect. “Gina has displayed an outstanding capacity for working independently and proactively, as well as for thinking creatively. She is incredibly intelligent, kind, humble, and positive. Working with her through the pandemic has definitely helped keep us going. She is truly an exceptional student.”
In the fall, Starfield will begin working at The Door, an NGO addressing the complex needs of youth in New York City, representing immigrant youth in their applications for asylum and other special visas. According to Starfield, her work has just begun: “I am dedicated to advancing the rights of marginalized people, and I will continue this work in Professor Grossman’s memory.”