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Sarah Brenes
Sarah Brenes is executive director of the Binger Center for New Americans. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Efforts continue for New Americans center director

Sarah Brenes is continuing her focus on immigration law as executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Brenes leads strategic planning and manages operations for the center, which works to expand legal services for noncitizens. The center this year will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding.

“It’s an exciting time for the center to reflect on the accomplishments of the last decade, which were really monumental, and challenge ourselves to dream where we want to be as a community of legal services providers, a community of immigrants, in 10 years,” Brenes said.

Brenes has worked in collaboration with the Binger Center since its founding during her decade-plus of practicing immigration law at one of the center’s partner organizations, the Advocates for Human Rights. Brenes directed that organization’s refugee and immigrant program before joining the Binger Center in August.

Brenes said she “came up in that generation of immigration law that has been fairly restrictive and has just grown continuously more complex” since 9/11.

That complexity makes access to legal representation important for clients, and has compelled Brenes to continue working in immigration law.

“Many people don’t have the resources to hire an attorney, particularly if they’re seeking humanitarian protection,” Brenes said. “That commitment to individual agency and autonomy, to be able to seek what all migrants are usually seeking, that are reasons for people to move, which are food, fear and family, the main drivers that people choose or are forced to move away from whatever was originally their home, that’s been the motivation to stick with it.”

Brenes succeeded the center’s previous executive director, Deepinder Singh Mayell, who last year became executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

The Binger Center describes itself as the only program of its kind in the country, in partnering with law firms and nonprofit immigration legal services to pursue litigation to improve immigration laws and support noncitizens through education and community outreach. The center operates clinics where students participate in impact litigation, defend incarcerated indigent noncitizens and represent asylum seekers.

“The number of students that have graduated from the center and continue to work in the immigration field is something that we’re really proud of and so that hopefully will continue, that momentum,” Brenes said.

Name: Sarah Brenes

Title: Executive director, Binger Center for New Americans, University of Minnesota Law School

Education: B.A., international affairs, George Washington University; master’s in human rights and peace education, National University in Costa Rica; J.D., University of St. Thomas School of Law

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Food. Offering food, sharing a good recipe, restaurant or gardening success.

Q: Why did you go to law school?

A: In hindsight, I think I was drawn to law school because it was an intellectual challenge that would give me a useful tool to connect with people. I had the privilege of a good education that made law school a possibility for me. Many people stuck in the legal system, particularly in the complex area of immigration, are at a disadvantage when trying to resolve legal issues on their own. Law school gave me a practice tool I could share with clients who are simply trying to build a better life for themselves in the U.S.

Q: What books are you reading?

A: “Inflamed” by Raj Patel and Rupa Marya.

Q: Pet peeve?

A: Walking into a puddle with dry socks. Not folding the laundry when it comes out of the dryer.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: Connecting budding lawyers with the wealth of knowledge in the immigration law community.

Q: Most challenging? 

A: Our immigration laws are a labyrinth with more dead-ends than passageways to opportunity for new immigrants.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: Learning from my kids, friends and family; swimming; zero-waste cooking.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: Loop along the river between the Stone Arch Bridge and Plymouth Bridge through Boom Island.

Q: Legal figure you most admire?

A: Thurgood Marshall.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: “12 Angry Men,” “Philadelphia” and “Marshall.”

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