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Tulane Law to open immigrants' rights clinic in 2020

June 18, 2019 10:15 AM
Alina Hernandez ahernandez4@tulane.edu

Jose Torres, center, an immigrant activist who lived eight months in a New Orleans church under a deportation order, worked with Tulane Law students Nate Hall (left) and Marshal Garbus (right) as part of Tulane Law School's growing, hands-on training courses in immigration law. The school is set to open an immigrants' rights clinic in the next academic year. (Photo: Alina Hernandez)


Tulane Law School is launching a new Immigrants’ Rights Law Clinic to prepare students to meet the rapidly growing crisis in access to justice for detainees, announced Dean David Meyer.

The new clinic, supported by a generous seed gift of $400,000 by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, comes as Louisiana is playing an increasingly central role in the nation’s immigration crisis and as Tulane Law is expanding skills-training opportunities for students.

“In many ways, Louisiana is ground zero for the access to justice crisis for immigrants across the country,” Meyer said.  “Our new clinic will not only serve urgent community need, but it will be a training ground for the next generation of immigration attorneys.”

The launch of the clinic follows the recruitment to Tulane two years ago of Professor Laila Hlass, a leading expert on immigrant law and policy, and a substantial build-out of research and curricular offerings relating to immigration law.

“Louisiana is an incarceration destination for immigrants—with a collection of detention centers holding thousands of people as their immigration cases are heard by courts in Oakdale and Jena,” Hlass said.

And the state’s prominence in the unfolding national immigration crisis will continue to grow as the federal government has more than doubled the number of detention beds in Louisiana since September 2018 alone. The remote location of the state’s detention centers compounds the challenges for detainees in accessing lawyers and defending their rights. 

Access to counsel is impaired by the fact that immigrant detention centers in Louisiana, which can house more than 4,000 immigrants, are hundreds of miles away from New Orleans, where the majority of immigration defense attorneys live and work.

As a result, nearly 90 percent of Louisiana’s immigrant detainees must represent themselves in immigration court, a system one immigration judge famously referred to as “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”

Yet, access to an attorney has a powerful relationship to outcomes: Studies have shown immigrants multiply their chances of winning their case by up to 14 times if they have a lawyer.

Beyond the challenges of adult detainees held in remote locations, Hlass noted that the clinic will also play an important role in meeting the legal needs of children caught up in the immigration system.

“Louisiana is also one of the top 10 states where the greatest number of unaccompanied immigrant children are released to live with family,” Hlass said.  “The vast majority of children come to the New Orleans region where they will appear before the New Orleans Immigration Court.  But there is no right to an appointed attorney there, so many children and adults are forced to represent themselves.”

The new clinic joins six existing in-house legal clinics at Tulane: Criminal Justice, Juvenile Law, Civil Rights and Federal Practice, Environmental Law, Domestic Violence and Legislative Advocacy clinics, plus Intellectual Property Labs in Patent and Trademark. It will enhance Tulane’s unique position in addressing gaps in access to justice for indigent populations and create a pipeline of highly-trained, local immigrant defense attorneys and advocates. 

The launch of the immigration clinic realizes a years-long strategic goal of Tulane Law School to assert national leadership in a field of surging practical and policy importance to the United States.

“Given Louisiana’s increasingly prominent role as a national detention center for migrants and Tulane’s long strength in clinical education and pro bono service, Tulane’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic will not only meet critical needs at home but serve as a national model in developing best practices to meet the growing crisis across the country,” Meyer said.

“We are enormously grateful to the donor who enabled us to launch the clinic and look forward to working with our alumni and other partners in expanding support for this critical initiative in the years to come,” he said.

Since 2017, Tulane has been expanding and consolidating its immigration offerings with additional courses and pro bono opportunities under Hlass, who joined the faculty in January of that year as Director of Experiential Learning. 

Profs. Mary Yanik and Laila Hlass

Before joining Tulane’s faculty, Hlass, a national authority on immigration law, was director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Boston University School of Law.  One of the most innovative initiatives Hlass has rolled out in the past two years is the Immigrants’ Rights Practicum course, where law students in collaboration with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice help represent noncitizens seeking humanitarian immigration protections. Last year, under the supervision of Hlass and co-faculty adjunct Prof. Mary Yanik, students helped survivor of human trafficking Jose Torres petition for a pathway to stay in the United States. 

In addition to representing clients and training future lawyers, the clinic will work for reform in immigration law regionally through direct services, strategic impact litigation and legislative advocacy. The clinic will also serve as a regional hub for expertise in immigration law, partnering with other organizations and networks in Louisiana and across the Deep South to broaden its impact and advocacy.

The yearlong clinic, alongside the one semester practicum, will enroll up to 15 students annually, providing some 3200 hours of service through individual client representation and community consultations. Like the other clinics, it also will do a fair amount of outreach work, including conducting training for outside pro bono attorneys, “know your rights” sessions with detainees, and workshops for high-needs populations like immigrant children, asylum-seekers and those looking to become naturalized citizens.

The law school has launched a national search for the faculty director of the clinic and will begin enrolling students in Fall 2020.