Georgia State College of Law opened a new Immigration Clinic in spring 2020 in an effort to address the need for more immigration attorneys in the metro Atlanta area. The college’s downtown Atlanta location makes it an ideal place for the clinic because the Atlanta Immigration Court has a backlog of about 13,000 cases. In Atlanta, asylum seekers wait about three years for a court date, with a 97 percent asylum denial rate. Through the Immigration Clinic, which is funded by a three-year Kresge Foundation grant, the college hopes to educate the next generation of immigration attorneys and judges in order to improve legal efficacy.
Professor Emily Torstveit Ngara joined the College of Law faculty after at Hofstra University in order to lead the clinic. She, along with supervising attorney Will Miller, who managed his own immigration law firm before coming to Georgia State, teach students how to navigate the highly nuanced immigration law system.
During the first semester, the clinic enrolled 11 students to work on 12 cases. At an orientation in January, they started with a discussion of “Asylum Denied” by David Ngaruri Kenney. From there, students learn how to file case briefs, research relevant case law and most importantly, build client relationships.
The latter can be challenging in asylum cases, especially when clients have experienced trauma. For second-year law student Shelby Guzzetta, tackling these challenges has been incredibly rewarding. She was inspired to take the client by the experiences her former high school students, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants.
“The Immigration Clinic is hands down my favorite thing I’ve done in law school and it’s because of the clients,” Guzzetta said. “The skills you’re building you can put into practice for people in ways that really matter. Yes, there are difficulties because sometimes there’s a language barrier or cultural barrier so you have to think about ways to build trust. But, if you sit down and talk for a while, you find shared interests.”
Catalina Ortiz shares that sentiment. She was drawn to take the clinic course because of her own experience immigrating from Colombia to the U.S. when she was 13 years old. Prior to enrolling at Georgia State, she worked as a paralegal at an immigration law firm and volunteered with the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network. More than course credit, Ortiz says that the Immigration Clinic has taught her how to apply theory to practice.
“Professor Emily and Will are doing an amazing job at teaching us how to practice immigration law effectively,” Ortiz said. “It’s not only building your skills as an attorney, but also having an impact on a community. That’s important to me.”
With the advent of COVID-19, dedicated immigration attorneys are especially important. Raids continue, trials for detainees are being held over Skype and court dates have been postponed for non-detained people. The clinic successfully argued to have its one client who was in detention released in February, so at this point, the clinic does not have any clients in detention. However, Torstveit Ngara is still concerned about due process for those who are detained.
“There is a reported lack of essential items like toilet paper and soap,” she said. “Several detention centers are doing Skype meetings with lawyers, and in those cases you are going into a room where someone else has been and we know this virus can live on surfaces and in the air for a prolonged period of time.”
As for the clinic, students and faculty are focused on maintaining client relationships, despite some technological gaps and challenges. They are also preparing for the possibility of continuing online learning in the fall.
“I have been pleased with the quality of work, buy-in and enthusiasm from the students,” Torstveit Ngara said. “They were brave to take this clinic from an unknown entity, and they’ve all been engaged and flexible.”
Written by Kelundra Smith