There’s long been an awareness that Minnesota’s rural immigrant communities have had inadequate access to legal services, according to Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School.
But after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, “there’s a lot more anxiety and fear in those communities,” he says. So the Binger Center, which already had three immigration-related clinics at the U of M, set out to take its services directly to the rural immigrant communities.
That endeavor began in 2017 as the Rural Access Initiative, a somewhat informal venture where law students and volunteer lawyers would visit a town for a day and provide legal screening and counseling for immigrants. Then, after “working out the kinks,” as Mayell puts it, the initiative took the shape of a full-blown legal clinic, the center’s fourth devoted to immigration, this semester. The Rural Immigration Access Clinic, a for-credit class, offers a small group of students the opportunity to gain firsthand experience working directly with immigrants in their own locales.
The clinic works with partner organizations, the Minnesota ACLU in particular, to set up the one-day “pop up” clinics in community center, libraries, church basements, getting out the word to the affected communities that they can get free legal advice in a safe setting.
The students and volunteer attorneys meet individually with the clients, oftentimes aided by interpreters, and screen for any kind of potential immigration relief. Mayell says the kinds of matters the clients seek help on vary widely. One might be a permanent resident who is eligible for citizenship, but another might be someone without status but who might be eligible for asylum or attainment of status through a family member.
For those who have families and no options for status, the students can assist in completing a form called Delegation for Parental Authority. If an undocumented parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen is picked up for deportation proceedings, the Delegation for Parental Authority allows that parent to transfer parental authority to a named party.
“The immigration system has grown very narrow; the ability to get relief has become more and more complex,” Mayell says. “There are often people who have lived in the community for decades, who have children who are U.S. citizens and who, for all intents and purposes, are part of their community, but don’t have any options to stay. We will advise those individuals on their rights, on the risks involved with living in the shadows, and also how to prepare themselves in case anything does happen.”
To Emily Ortlieb, a third-year student from Algonquin, Illinois, the clinic experience has been invaluable.
“Personally, it’s done wonders for my confidence, especially dealing one on one with people who have experienced some form of trauma,” she says. “It’s also really opened my eyes to a lot of issues I hadn’t been exposed to.”
Ortlieb has been focused on a career in immigration law before coming to law school. A graduate of the University of Illinois with a degree in music performance, she went to Europe on the Fulbright Program and became active in a refugee support organization in Austria. When she came back to the U.S., committed to becoming an immigration lawyer, she worked in a shelter for unaccompanied minors.
In law school, she’s pursued other avenues to further her knowledge and expertise in immigration law, serving as the supervising student attorney in the Binger Center’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Upon completion of her studies this spring she will be joining the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, D.C., where she will be working on (among other things) access to justice in rural areas.
While working in the rural clinics has been a positive experience, Ortlieb says, it’s also been a melancholy one.
“A lot of people we see are undocumented, but are usually pretty established in their communities—many times more than 10 years—and really have established lives here,” she says. “I think that over the past two years, with the new administration coming in and immigration rhetoric changing so drastically, it’s really caused a lot of people to fear for their lives.”
Mayell typically accompanies the students and the volunteer lawyers on their sojourns into rural Minnesota, and he says he’s always moved by what he sees.
“It’s always a powerful experience to be in communities at this stage of the process,” he says. “Oftentimes, attorneys and student attorneys are dealing with the legal problems when the person is in court or is detention or the case is on appeal. The people we see in the clinics, though, oftentimes have nothing touching the immigration system or the court system. We’re seeing them living in their communities, they’re happy, they’re with their families, but they’re concerned.
“It’s powerful because you see people living happily in their communities, but you also see the risk of what potentially could happen and you understand the impact of even a single deportation in a community to a family or to a couple or to a child. You can understand the impact more than when you just see somebody in court or in jail.”