A Voice for Justice

Professor Elora Mukherjee and law students from Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic are fighting for asylum seekers held in detention — and winning.

by Jan Goodwin Published Fall 2015
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Suny and her son Angelo spent four months in a Texas detention center before the law clinic won their release. “The professor and students saved my life,” Suny says. / Photogtaphy by Ronnie AndrenAnother client Suny, thirty-nine, fled Honduras after her mother and stepfather were gunned down outside their home. Her mother was a respected community leader, but the police officers failed to investigate the crime, and when Suny began to speak out about the murders, she received death threats. Terrified, she hired someone to transport her, her partner, and her youngest son, Angelo, age eight, to the United States. When they asked for asylum at the border, Suny was separated from her child’s father, and she and her son were detained at Dilley. The law clinic won release for Suny; Angelo’s case is still pending.

Wale (not his real name), thirty-three and a Nigerian preacher, was targeted by Boko Haram. Wale landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport and was incarcerated at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.

“I needed help, but I was treated like an animal,” says Wale. “The detention center has no windows, and I never saw the outside or felt fresh air for six months. I can never forget those law students from Columbia University. They won asylum for me and saved my life.”

The Elizabeth center, which is in the middle of an industrial park, releases asylees like Wale without offering any support or even giving them bus fare. They are usually released wearing the clothes they were arrested in — even if this means a summer-thin African outfit in the middle of winter. The law students drive to New Jersey to fetch them, and if they have nowhere to go, they stay with Mukherjee until suitable housing can be found. Her husband, Jamal Greene, Columbia Law School’s vice dean and a professor of law, is fully supportive of his wife’s extracurricular commitment. He has grown used to his coats and jackets being donated to strangers who show up in the middle of the night.

Mukherjee is all too familiar with the needs of asylum seekers in detention centers. Before joining Columbia Law School, she was a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and in 2007 she litigated lawsuits on behalf of twenty-six children detained at the Hutto center. “What we found at Hutto was shocking: the detainees were asylum seekers from around the world — including Christian Iraqis fleeing religious persecution and a Canadian boy whose parents were tortured in Iran for having a copy of The Satanic Verses,” says Mukherjee. “They were refugees fleeing for their lives, but they were locked in cells for more than twelve hours a day and treated like criminals. Children were dressed in prison garb. They were rarely allowed outside to play, and they were not being properly educated. The desperation was overwhelming.” After the ACLU sued, and ultimately reached a settlement with ICE, conditions improved, and today families are no longer sent to Hutto.

When Mukherjee joined Columbia in 2013 as a clinical teaching fellow, she knew she wanted to continue to work on immigrants’ rights. “In the proposal I gave during the hiring process I suggested we start a clinic and do pro bono work because the need is so great.” Her motivation was not only practical, however, but personal. “Our clients want the chance to create a safer, better life for their children,” says Mukherjee. “I understand that desire: they are pursuing the same dream my parents had when they came to America.”

There are multiple reports of asylum seekers, including children, who have been returned to their countries only to be murdered.

Mukherjee, who grew up in suburban New Jersey, is the daughter of immigrants from India. She says her parents worked hard at multiple jobs in order to ensure that their two daughters had the best start in life. Mukherjee triple-majored in Spanish, political science, and economics at Rutgers University and graduated from Yale Law School in 2005. Her family put a premium on education, she says, because they truly understood its value.

“My father grew up in a small village, in a home with no running water and no electricity. He was one of eight kids, and because his family struggled to make ends meet, he and his siblings often went hungry. But he loved studying and won a full scholarship to the Indian Institutes of Technology, India’s MIT. When he came here, he had seven dollars in his pocket.

“Growing up we’d visit my father’s village, and I would see the stark contrast between how they lived and how I lived in America. It made me realize at a very young age that the world is unfair,” says Mukherjee. “I knew that I should do what I could, as I got older, to make even a small difference in people’s lives.”

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