Sabrineh Ardalan’s phone call with her client, a man detained in the U.S. for more than a year as his asylum claim ground through the courts, was running long. For months, she and a dozen Harvard Law School students had been working on all aspects of his case: representing him before a judge, trying to secure his release from detention on bond, and filing an appeal when his initial application was denied.

After hanging up, Ardalan ’02 was hopeful — and frustrated. She knew her students were doing everything they could. But she was also well aware of the harmful consequences of long-term confinement.

“It’s the repeated, compounding injustices of the system,” she said, “keeping somebody detained who has already suffered so much and forcing him to suffer more in detention with medical and mental health conditions that are being exacerbated.” 

Ultimately, the emotional and physical toll of detention became too much for their client, and he asked Ardalan to withdraw his appeal. 

“It is devastating,” Ardalan admitted. “But it makes me even more committed to ending detention and trying to change the system.” 

Fighting injustice is Ardalan’s driving ethos and her main mission as director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, a longtime law school initiative supporting the rights of immigrants and refugees. As head of the program and a clinical professor of law, Ardalan has worked closely with students for years helping individuals find a life free from fear and trying to bring change to a system in need of fixing, even, she says, if that means simply ensuring it does what it’s meant to do. “If we do nothing more than stand by the treaties that we’ve incorporated into U.S. law, we’d be actually protecting so many more people,” said Ardalan. “But at every turn there’s a new attempt to undermine and eviscerate asylum.”

Immigration in the United States has long been a political flashpoint, from the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party in the 1850s; to President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 that both offered legalization to undocumented migrants who entered the country prior to 1982, and clamped down on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers; to actions of the most recent presidential administrations. Beginning in 2012, President Barack Obama ’91 shielded hundreds of thousands of children of undocumented immigrants from deportation with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but he was also criticized for formally removing more people than any other president in U.S. history up to that point. In 2015, Donald Trump introduced his plans to crack down on immigration, later issuing a range of executive orders from the White House that narrowed humanitarian protections, increased enforcement, and made legal immigration more difficult. Since taking office, President Joe Biden has tried to overturn some  Trump-era restrictions, but challenges remain. To help expedite cases involving immigrants entering the United States along its southern border, he created the Dedicated Docket program in 2021, but many, including Ardalan, argue the program has had the opposite effect.

A 2023 report that Ardalan wrote with Clinical Instructor Tiffany Lieu and several law school students highlighted the flaws in the Dedicated Docket program’s Boston proceedings. They called out the unpredictable timing of court hearings, the backlog of cases that makes it hard for clients to find representation, and the general confusion surrounding the program that has led to missed hearings, resulting in deportations. “As this report reveals,” they wrote, “the proceedings for these thousands of immigrants are neither fair nor expeditious.”

In February, students working under Ardalan’s supervision wrote another report with the Crimmigation Clinic, directed by Assistant Clinical Professor Phil Torrey, based on more than six years of Freedom of Information Act litigation initiated by the two clinics. That litigation has shined  a light on the government’s practice of holding immigrants and refugees in solitary confinement. “We are finally getting documents that show just how horrific the conditions are, how many thousands of people have been held in solitary and for how long — in some cases, years,” said Ardalan. “We are really hoping our litigation and advocacy work will help tackle these kinds of systemic issues.”

The child of Iranians who were unable to return to their country following the 1979 revolution, Ardalan grew up in Washington, D.C., where politics and human rights violations were the frequent topic of dinnertime discussions. As a teen, she worked on a newsletter about democracy in Iran produced by her parents and dreamed of becoming an interpreter for the U.N. (she speaks English, French, Farsi, and Spanish). In college, she concentrated in history and international studies, and began planning for a career in human rights or international affairs. “I never had law school in my head,” she confessed.

But during a post-college fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she  worked with two lawyers. “They were very focused on the fact that law school would give me the tools to do lots of different things,” she said. “And it was because of their advice that I ended up applying.”

On campus Ardalan quickly created community with a group of like-minded public interest students. She found a second home at the Office of Public Interest Advising and gained a lifelong mentor in Deborah Anker LL.M. ’84, founder of the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. Anker supervised Ardalan’s clinical work at the Greater Boston Legal Services Clinic. “That was really a formative experience,” Ardalan said of her time working with Anker.

I love working with students. They bring so much creativity, enthusiasm, new ways of tackling problems, and hope and dedication — all the things you need to do this work.

Sabrineh Ardalan

It was just one of many. At Harvard, Ardalan also worked with the International Human Rights Clinic and the Criminal Justice Institute. She joined Harvard Defenders  and the  Ghana Project, working with the Legal Resources Centre in Accra.

But perhaps her most formative law school experience involved securing asylum for someone fleeing political persecution in Uganda. “Building trust and having the privilege of learning the life story of this man was just incredibly powerful,” she said. “It really cemented for me how inspired I feel getting to work with people and advocate for them directly.”

After graduation she worked at a firm and The Opportunity Agenda, a nonprofit co-founded by HLS colleague Alan Jenkins ’89, and held clerkships at a U.S. district court and a U.S. circuit court of appeals. Then, eager for something more long term, she began considering a career in clinical teaching. Anker encouraged her to apply for a clinical teaching fellowship at Harvard, and Ardalan never looked back. Today she says she can’t imagine being anywhere else, working with immigrants, advocating for systemic change, and training the next generation of students to become leaders in the field, all while learning as much from them as they do from her.

“I love working with students. They bring so much creativity, enthusiasm, new ways of tackling problems, and hope and dedication — all the things you need to do this work,” said Ardalan. “They take the lead on everything, from the FOIA litigation, to writing reports, to meeting with clients, to bond hearings, all of it. They’re incredible advocates, and I feel so lucky to get to work alongside them and our clients who inspire me every day.”