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Tulane immigration law program makes big impact on Louisiana community

October 30, 2023 2:00 PM
Alina Hernandez ahernandez4@tulane.edu



In 2020, as Louisiana’s detention of immigrants soared to the second highest in the nation, Tulane Law boosted its immigration law program with the launch of a new legal clinic dedicated to building a pipeline of attorneys through training students to represent local community members in seeking immigration status.

The effort, a boost to local immigration advocacy in a state with a huge access to justice gap for immigrants, has so far surpassed expectations for success.

In just three years, the law school’s immigration law program has flourished, training dozens of law students, many of whom have gone on to careers in immigration firms, nonprofits, government service, or in fellowships in the field. The centerpiece of the immigration program is the new Immigrant Rights Clinic thatstarted with a seed gift of $400,000 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Under the direction of director Professor Mary Yanik with co-director Professor Laila Hlass, both powerhouse immigration law scholars, the Clinic has made a significant impact in transforming Louisiana’s landscape by placing skilled immigrant rights advocates in places where they can most effectively help vulnerable immigrants including children, detained adults, and immigrant workers. More students are entering the field out of law school, and Hlass and Yanik’s research, scholarship, and advocacy has been a model to immigration law advocates.

“We train students to provide high quality, zealous legal representation to every client, which can be life-changing for immigrant families who come to us for help in seeking protection,” said Yanik. “And now we’re proud that many of our alumni are now our colleagues, building their careers, assisting more families in need, and becoming experts in their own right.”

In three years, Tulane’s immigration law program has:

  • Trained dozens of students through the Immigrant Rights Clinic, several immigration law courses and Tulane Legal Assistance Program’s Immigration pro bono project;
  • Expanded course offerings to include an asylum class, taught by Professor Bo Cooper (L'87), as well as a course focused on deportation defense, taught by Professor Homero Lopez (L'10);
  • Supported students in pursuing immigration careers after graduation. In 2023 alone, four of the five graduating students enrolled in the clinic went on to practice in the field.  Also in the past year, another Tulane Law alum began a fellowship leading the Louisiana ACLU’s efforts to ramp up immigration representation. In total, six students in the Class of 2023 landed full-time immigration attorney positions.
  • Four students have been named to the prestigious Immigrant Justice Corps Fellowships (IJC) – with three in 2023. The IJC Fellows train for two or more years with nonprofits across the country, and the program is known to be a consistent pipeline of immigration attorneys. The Immigrant Rights Clinic was also named as one of the first sites in Louisiana to host IJC fellows in 2021.
  • Graduates of the immigration program have also obtained positions within prestigious immigration firms as well as the Department of Justice Honors program clerking with the immigration court and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Asylum Office.

“The work of the Immigrant Rights Clinic under Professors Yanik and Hlass has been nothing short of incredible,” said Interim Dean Sally Richardson. “From directly helping immigrant youth and workers as clients to producing incredible legal research that is changing the landscape of immigration policy, the Clinic is truly ameliorating people’s lives."

"And, with the burgeoning immigration law program at Tulane Law School, we are doing all of this while teaching students to become the next generation of talented immigration lawyers," Richardson added. "We are so proud to have this incredible growth in our immigration law program at Tulane and look forward to seeing how the program continues to grow in the years to come.”

Recent graduate Andrew Perry (L’23), has become the Immigrant Rights Staff Attorney for the Louisiana ACLU, where he works with fellow nonprofit partners in the immigration space. Perry enrolled in the First Amendment Clinic while in law school, and credits his well-rounded legal education at Tulane with preparing him to understand the needs of the immigrant community and dive into immigration law.

“I coordinate monthly trips to ICE detention facilities in order to present information on legal rights while in detention (with those partners), and also interface with the National ACLU and its Immigrants’ Rights Project,” Perry said.

These immigration experiences, whether in a fellowship or through the clinic, have been career-defining, many students say.

“The Immigrant Rights Clinic was not only the best thing I could have done for my academic learning experience while in law school, but also the best thing I could have done for the start of my legal career with the Immigrant Justice Corps,” said Kayla Chisholm (L’23) who recently joined the International Rescue Committee – Dallas as a Fellow working in their Unaccompanied Minors program. “The Tulane Immigrant Rights Clinic gave me the skills to think critically and interpret complex laws while also taking care of myself so that I could provide a heightened level of care for vulnerable people.”

The 2023 Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Students praise not just the skills they learned but also the mentorship of Hlass and Yanik.

“As a former student attorney in the clinic and now an IJC fellow, I have developed the necessary skills to represent and advocate for my clients in their immigration proceedings,” said Gabriela Cruz (L’21) who is not only a Clinic alumna, but also completing an IJC Fellowship there. “My clients, who are mostly youth, are grateful for the work we do together to help them obtain status in the U.S., and it is my honor to accompany them in that path. Professors Yanik and Hlass taught me to be a zealous advocate and guided and supported me with compassion. I believe good mentors and supervisors are essential in the life of a law student and young practitioner, and I am lucky to have found two of the best.”

Beyond fellowships and work through nonprofits, Tulane students increasingly are going into law firms practicing immigration law. In 2022, Taylor Sabatino (L'22), a clinic alum, and Louise Phan (L'22) a student in the Immigration Law and Policy course, both obtained positions at Fragomen, a prestigious global immigration firm. In 2023, another clinic alumna, Mariana Piedrahita (L'23) joined the immigration practice of Jackson Lewis, one of the nation's leading employment defense firms; Sean Gourgues (L'23) joined the NWIRP, a leading immigration services nonprofit organization, and Ethan Thomas (L'23) landed a spot at the Meneses Law Firm in Houston, an immigration firm representing individuals and companies.

For their part, Hlass and Yanik’s research and scholarship have been lauded across the nation. In 2021, the two were recognized as Bellow Scholars by the American Association of Law Schools to support their scholarly research geared at improving justice in communities and enhancing the delivery of legal services. Working with clinic students, they examined hundreds of federal court cases challenging the legality of immigration detention in Louisiana over a decade and published a report “No End in Sight: Prolonged and Punitive Immigration Detention in Louisiana,” drawing significant news coverage to the plight of immigrants seeking release from prolonged detention.

In addition to the clinic’s work training new immigration lawyers, Tulane’s impact on the community in the field has been significant. For example, in the Fall semester, the clinic hosted the regional Southeast convening of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, which gathered organizers and attorneys to discuss the pressing challenges in the region.