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Release: Nov. 27, 2000

More UI law students taking on asylum cases

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- George Maxwell, Chris Passler, Diane Kirshnamurti, and Heruy Mebrahtu are among a small but growing number of University of Iowa law students who are representing asylum seekers who have recently arrived to Iowa. It is likely that without the students' no-fee service or that provided by a marginal number of immigration law practitioners, the recently arrived immigrants -- none of whom have a legal right to publicly-funded counsel -- would face imminent harm if ordered to return to their homelands.

This year, 13 law students interning at the UI's Legal Clinic are working on immigration law projects and many of those students have winning courtroom experience. The Clinic students have been successful in getting affirmative rulings from Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials and have been victorious in most of their cases argued before immigration judges.

Among those students with winning experience is Mebrahtu, a third-year law student who explains that an asylum seeker gets representation from the Clinic after it's determined that the immigrant has a strong claim. Law students represent those asylum seekers in the INS' asylum office as well as the immigration court. Mebrahtu says Clinic students gather supporting documents that corroborate immigrants' claims of abuse or possible retribution that might befall them because of their political or other beliefs.

Last Tuesday Maxwell and Passler represented a Congolese man's asylum claim before an INS immigration judge in Council Bluffs. Maxwell says that although he can't talk specifically about his client's case, he says most asylum seekers are from places with oppressive regimes or places torn by civil war.

"They flee their homeland because some group or the government has singled them out for persecution because of their characteristics, such as political opinion, religion or membership in a social group. They tell stories of them or their family members of a social group being raped, beaten, killed, or imprisoned. Sometimes these asylum seekers have actually been the victims of physical torture or persecution, Maxwell says.

Many of those immigrants needing the students' help do not understand English or the American judicial system. Without counsel, Maxwell says, the immigrants might not be able to effectively advance their legal arguments. Complicating immigrants' claims for asylum is that many do not have witnesses to support them. In some cases, UI law students have been able to get affidavits from witnesses still abroad.

Law professors Barbara Schwartz and Reta Noblett-Feld supervise the Clinic students' work, although students are given wide latitude in their decision making. Immigration law, Schwartz says, is an area that is frequently practiced in law school clinics because most immigrants can't afford counsel. Students, in return for their services, gain valuable courtroom and legal experience.

Schwartz is a member of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; with roughly 15 members it is the largest bar group of immigration lawyers in the state. Immigration law, she says, is fertile ground for new attorneys given the steadily increasing population of Iowa immigrants.

"There is a huge demand for immigrant legal representation. About half of the cases the Clinic handles are asylum cases. The Clinic may be the only one of its kind in the state that offers this service for free," Schwartz says.

"Immigrants needing help are from all over the world -- Bosnia, countries of the former Soviet Union, Africa, and elsewhere. I even have a client who needs help who was adopted as a toddler from Canada by an Iowa couple," Schwartz says.

As the number of high-tech jobs continue to attract immigrants to Iowa, there is the increased likelihood that there will be a rise in the number of immigration attorneys, particularly in the
Des Moines area, Schwartz says.

Mebrahtu says taking on meritorious claims is hard but satisfying work. He hasn't decided which area of law he'd like to practice, but the California native says immigration law is one in which he would consider specializing.