On one side of the office, two students huddled over laptops and papers, writing and re-writing draft after draft. On the other side, another student paced back and forth, ceaselessly rehearsing his opening statements, repeating them until they were second nature. The team debated word choice, took turns playing judges and government attorneys, and spent long hours editing their arguments to make them as precise as possible. Soon, one would be standing in front of a three-judge bench in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, reciting the words that he and his team had perfected.
This was the scene at the Crimmigration Clinic in March, as Shing-Shing Cao ‘24, Pablo Lozano ‘23, and Farris Peale ‘24 prepared for the First Circuit to hear their argument in Sharma v. Garland. During the fall semester, clinical students Serena Hughley ‘23 and Andrew Santana ‘23 wrote the clinic’s opening brief. This spring, Cao and Peale stepped in to write the reply brief, while Lozano presented the oral argument.
“I’d be walking to school thinking about how to present something. Before I went to bed, I’d be thinking about it. Brushing my teeth, I’d be thinking about it. This oral argument was my life.” Lozano laughs remembering it now, but the time and energy the students poured into the case is no laughing matter. The team felt the gravity of their work throughout every minute, given the case’s potential implications for immigrants’ rights.
Sharma v. Garland hinged on a question of derived citizenship that the First Circuit had not previously considered, upon which other circuit courts are split. The plaintiff, Mr. Sharma, spent over 25 years incarcerated, and upon his paroled release, was detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While DHS attempts to remove him from the United States, his citizenship status hung in question.
The clinic’s appeal argued that Mr. Sharma derived citizenship upon his mother’s naturalization when he was a minor. The legal question of the case, whether or not Mr. Sharma automatically derived citizenship, had implications for some minors who would have derived citizenship prior to 2001, before the effective date of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.
While the legal questions of the case involve deep research into past immigration statutes, Mr. Sharma’s personal story held profound significance to the students working on his appeal.
“We had the privilege of meeting our client, Mr. Sharma, last semester during our clinical seminar. He was kind enough to share very openly about his background, his personal experiences, his time incarcerated in prison, as well as his time detained in immigration detention,” says Cao. “The incredible opportunity to meet him both put into perspective the stakes for our legal argument and our brief, but more importantly, let us get to know him a bit better and understand what his priorities are.”
Under the steadfast guidance of assistant clinical professor of law and leader in the crimmigration field Phil Torrey, Cao and Peale dove into the brief writing process as soon as they joined the clinic this spring. Legal research and writing can be an isolating experience—digging into arcane court decisions to find a perfectly precise piece of support for the brief’s argument is often time-consuming and sometimes fruitless. But with Torrey’s support, Cao and Peale felt energized throughout the entire process.
“It’s not often that you get many rounds of red-line edits, and you get to sit together and rearrange things,” Peale says of the writing process. “Using the brief the students had written the previous semester, developing arguments as best we could from our understanding, getting feedback, having the ability to write a lot of it on our own, but also getting a lot of support and detailed comments with revisions made this one of the best experiences I’ve had in legal writing, or a legal environment altogether.”
Cao concurs: “This was one of the best legal writing experience I’ve ever had, because of how collaborative it was.”
As the brief took shape throughout their many rounds of edits, Lozano observed Peale and Cao’s meetings. By understanding their thinking behind each piece of the brief, he developed the oral argument. With each new edit, Lozano would rehearse again, often in front of an audience of Cao, Peale, and Torrey. Torrey also set up moot arguments in front of fellow immigration attorneys and attorneys with First Circuit argument experience. The team mooted the argument countless times, peppering Lozano with new questions and rebuttals to prepare him for his fifteen minutes in front of the court.
“You never know what the judges are going to ask you,” says Lozano. “So, you develop an outline, and you hope to get through a certain amount of points before the judges start cutting you off.”
The process did not come without intermittent self-doubt for Lozano: “There was a moment when I wondered, ‘Am I the right person to be doing this?’ The clinic was entirely helpful and reassuring, and I learned that perhaps I could be a little too critical of myself.”
On the day of the argument, the Crimmigration Clinic team arrived at the courthouse as comprehensively prepared as they could possibly be. With Cao, Peale, and Torrey there to support him, Lozano stood, took the podium, and presented his oral argument.
“Once the questions [from the judges] start rolling, you just fall back on what you know and what you trained for,” Lozano reflects.
His fifteen minutes flew by. Despite facing an aggressive line of questioning from the judges, Lozano felt a sense of accomplishment when he sat back down next to his peers.
“The experience was incredible,” he says. “It’s the luck of the draw with judges—sometimes you get a favorable draw, and sometimes you don’t. I’m just grateful for how thorough the clinic was in preparing me. I’d have early morning meetings with [clinician] Tiffany Lieu and evening calls with Phil [Torrey]. I was only able to do it because of the support network I had around me. I think the phrase ‘it takes a village’ was very true for me in this case.”
As the team waited for a decision from the court, they continued their work in the Crimmigration Clinic, working with clients whose cases lie at the intersection of immigration law and criminal law. For Peale, the clinic has been an empowering experience.
“The power of the clinic is allowing you to think about what it means to be a lawyer in a lot of different settings, and how to effectively advocate for clients using all the different tools at your disposal,” says Peale. “It provides space for reflection, asking deeper questions about how to be the best lawyer we can be, and what it means to be doing this kind of advocacy. Continuing to ask those questions wherever I go next is a big takeaway for me.”
For Lozano, whose parents used to be migrant farmworkers as children and teenagers, his personal ties to the clinic work have also been cause for reflection, particularly about the implications of losing humanity within the legal work.
“There is a quote in the courthouse that says, “Justice is but truth.’ If I’ve learned anything throughout this entire process, it’s that justice is but politics, justice is but complicated, justice is but perception of truth. Truth is a very charged word because it means different things for everyone. That’s been my biggest takeaway, because I hold strong convictions for what this case means, and I really do believe in our argument.”
As a first-generation immigrant who became a citizen through the same derivative citizenship mechanism that they argued their client qualified for, Cao also brings a personal connection to the work. For her, the clinic has been a reminder of what brought her to law school. “I went back and looked at my personal statement from my HLS application, and I talked about wanting to do exactly this type of work, advocating for immigrants’ rights and people who have had interactions with the criminal legal system. This clinic gave me an invaluable opportunity both to work on an issue I’m passionate about and to do work that was really challenging and intellectually engaging. This is the work that I came to law school to do, and it was great to get a taste of that as part of this very supportive team.”
Cao found herself talking about her clinic work with friends and family, realizing how meaningful it became not only to her law school experience, but to her own life. “This work was very life-affirming. This clinic is a reminder that this work exists and is something that you can pursue.”
On May 1, 2023, the Court issued a decision in Sharma v. Garland. Read more on Law360.