Law students help young immigrants start anew
n a crowded hallway outside the chambers of the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court in Cambridge, third-year law student Kenneth Parreno, J.D. ’19, chatted quietly with his client, a 20-year-old Salvadoran woman who had crossed the border a year earlier.
It was a crisp fall morning, and they were about to face a momentous hearing that could clear the young woman’s path to a green card.
Under the law, certain foreign-born children in the U.S. can qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which may lead to legal residency. But first, a judge must grant a special findings order that establishes that the child is dependent upon the court; was abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent; and that it is in his or her best interest not to be returned to the child’s country of origin.
After a brief period of questioning, Judge Maureen Monks announced she would sign the order. Parreno, his client, and his supervising attorney, Stephanie Goldenhersh, the clinical instructor and assistant director of Family Practice at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, were elated.
“Muchas gracias,” said the young woman in her native Spanish, a big smile on her face, as she hugged both Parreno and Goldenhersh.
“I’m very happy,” said Parreno after the judge’s decision. “Now my client can carry on with her life.”
This was Parreno’s third time representing a young immigrant as a member of the Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run legal services organization at Harvard Law School. The bureau gives students real-world practice representing low-income clients in areas such as family law, housing law, government benefits, employment law, and SIJS cases.
Of all the practice areas the bureau has offered since its founding in 1913, immigration relief is the newest. The first cases were taken on in 2015, in the wake of a humanitarian crisis triggered by tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
“It’s troubling to see how much need there is for legal services, and how vulnerable communities can become even more vulnerable when they bear the brunt of the legal system.”
— Dianisbeth Acquie ’16, J.D. ’20
Working under the guidance of clinical instructors, students interview clients, prepare affidavits, and gather documentation showing that the children meet the requirements for SIJS immigration relief: They must be younger than 21, single, and already in the U.S. If a judge grants the order, clients are referred to local immigration attorneys or legal services organizations, which assist them with their petition for special status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Since 2015, the bureau has obtained special findings in 17 SIJS cases. It has now about a dozen active cases, according to Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr., clinical instructor at the bureau and the supervising attorney for the SIJS practice. Students relish working with young immigrants, he said.
“They’re representing individuals who are in need and giving them an opportunity to start over, in some cases,” Jean-Pierre said, “or maintain the life they’re used to.”
Law students at the bureau learn counseling and litigation skills and become familiar with the discovery process and courtroom procedure as they represent tenants facing eviction, divorcing, or involved in wage and hour disputes. And once in a while, they have the chance to present oral appeals at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a rare opportunity for law students.
Such was the case with Elizabeth Soltan, J.D. ’19, who has worked in housing and wage and hour cases. In the fall, she argued an appeal before the SJC prepared by her, Joey Herman, J.D. ’20, and Parreno, defending a lower court judge’s decision to award attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiffs. Soltan was thrilled.
“The case has the potential to be meaningful for workers in Massachusetts,” she said. “Even though it might seem sort of boring or nerdy because it’s just about attorney’s fees, when lawyers know that they can get their fees, they can feel comfortable taking on cases with clients who might have no income or fewer resources.”
For Allena Martin, J.D. ’19, a Cape Cod native with an interest in immigration and refugee law, human rights, and Latin America, SIJS cases bring big rewards for the dramatic impact they have on people’s lives.
Martin represented a 6-year-old girl from Central America and her young mother, securing court orders for both. The challenge in many of these cases, said Martin, is to ask clients to relive the traumatic events that led them to leave their homes behind.
“Part of the process is that they need to tell their stories to the judge to be granted the status, but often it’s very painful,” she said. “As part of my job as a student attorney, being forced to elicit the details of those stories can be daunting.”
Another challenge is the age limit to apply for special immigrant status. More than once, students have worked under pressure so their clients don’t age out of the system.
As part of her role as the SIJS Task Force Leader, Martin facilitates referrals from immigration partner organizations, meets with the lead clinical instructor to discuss cases and trends, and runs meetings with the students currently working on SIJS cases.
This semester, 46 students are members of the bureau. They manage their own caseloads and tackle cases from start to finish during their two-year commitment.
The need for legal representation is acute. According to Kids in Need of Defense, a partner organization of HLAB that finds pro bono representation for young immigrants, only one in 10 unaccompanied children have legal counsel. Unaccompanied minors without legal representation have a greater chance of being deported.
“There is so much at stake when it comes to making sure young immigrants do not stand in court alone,” said Dianisbeth Acquie ’16, J.D. ’20, who applied to HLS and to the Legal Aid Bureau because of her passion for community service. “It’s troubling to see how much need there is for legal services, and how vulnerable communities can become even more vulnerable when they bear the brunt of the legal system.”
Acquie, who was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, is representing a 19-year-old Brazilian girl and a 3-year-old boy from Honduras.
“When I look at these cases,” she said, “I’m reminded of how the legal system has so much to do with the course of an individual’s life, and how so much can change as a result of one order and one judgment. These are youth who will one day go on to live great lives and hopefully fulfill all their aspirations.”
Back at Middlesex Court, Parreno echoed this sentiment. The son of Ecuadorean immigrants who grew up in Houston, he has long been interested in Latinx civil rights and immigrant matters. After graduating from Harvard in 2011, he went back home to teach science to middle school kids. For him, working with young immigrants is part of a commitment to help improve their lives.
“We’re working with kids who have gone through so much, more than I have ever gone through or will ever go through in my life,” said Parreno. “When you hear everything that they went through, it makes you want to work that much harder to make sure they can have a better life.”