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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Cat Kim ’15LAW says the work has opened her eyes to the extent of the violence in parts of central America. / Photograph by Jörg MeyerAfter hours of consultations with their clients, the students return to their hotel to start the necessary paperwork and prepare for court. They usually work late into the night, since comprehensive legal documents have to be delivered to the judge, who is usually in another state, by 8:30 the next morning. “This operation takes the teamwork of the entire clinic, including law students back in New York who provide emergency services every single night,” says Mukherjee.

Recognizing that this work can be so physically and psychologically draining, Mukherjee teaches students self-care and coping strategies. “Each semester, I have a psychiatrist who works with survivors of torture talk to the clinic students about burnout, compassion fatigue, and what is known as vicarious trauma.” Vicarious trauma is secondary traumatic stress that comes from empathetically engaging with trauma survivors.

“Asylum work is emotionally difficult,” says Kim, “both because of what the clients have survived and because you are fighting an enormous bureaucracy that seems indifferent to human suffering.”

“They never know how long they will be incarcerated, which in itself is a cruel and unusual punishment,” says Mukherjee.

Despite the challenges, the clinic has had real success. Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann ’73CC of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit says, “Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is importantly contributing to meeting a critical need: providing legal representation to those who hope to have a chance of living the American dream. The clinic is also enabling life-changing experiences for law students who can make such a huge difference in the lives of desperate human beings.” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, says, “The work Professor Mukherjee and the law clinic are doing is essential. These families desperately need pro bono lawyers, and Mukherjee has marshaled the resources of Columbia University and its students to provide this.” Gillian Lester, dean of the law school, adds, “Professor Mukherjee has already accomplished remarkable things in this early period of the clinic’s life.”

And the results have been impressive. In just eighteen months the clinic has won release for dozens of asylum seekers, managed to secure conditional parole for one family (the first time that conditional parole was granted without bond since President Obama ’83CC restarted family detention), and helped other families secure the lowest possible bond of $1,500. Until recently, bonds were set as high as twenty thousand dollars, a fortune to an impoverished immigrant. According to Mukherjee, several women have attempted suicide, knowing they could never raise that sum.

In May, Hillary Clinton and 136 House Democrats called for an end to family detention. In June, thirty-three US senators did the same. Later that month, after Department of Homeland Security officials conducted numerous visits to family residential centers, Jeh Johnson released a statement: “We must make substantial changes to our detention practices with respect to families with children.” In July, Department of Homeland Security officials announced that “going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children ... if they have received a positive finding for credible or reasonable fear.” But the announcement also noted that “intake at these facilities is continuing.” Three weeks later, a federal judge in California ruled that the mothers and their children had been held in “wide-spread deplorable conditions” that failed to meet minimum legal requirements of the 1997 Flores settlement governing facilities housing children. She ordered the families to be released and gave the government ninety days to comply with her decision. At press time, there were still hundreds held in family detention as the Department of Homeland Security reviewed the court’s order with the Department of Justice.

Mukherjee expects that, given consistent pressure from human-rights organizations, the media, immigration lawyers, and students, the system will change for families. She is far less optimistic about the fate of the asylum seekers without kids who are still held in detention centers across the country, and who desperately need the clinic’s pro bono legal advice.

According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, it costs $343 a day to house one person at a detention center. Alternatives to detention, which include inexpensive ankle-bracelet monitoring systems or releasing asylum seekers to family members, sponsors, or a community-based case-management program, can cost just pennies or a few dollars per person per day. But in the end, Mukherjee asserts, our immigration policies should be based not on America’s economy but on America’s humanity. To this end, she hopes to teach her students both legal acumen and social responsibility. “I hope my students will continue to work in this field after they graduate, and strive to make a difference,” says Mukherjee. “I want them to realize that they are capable of saving lives. Jailing these trauma survivors is contrary to our values. Whatever happened to ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’? I only hope we can fulfill that one day soon.”

Columbia Divests From Private Prison Companies

In June, Columbia’s Board of Trustees decided to divest from private prison companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America, and adopted a policy against making future investments in those companies. The decision was recommended by the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing and endorsed by President Bollinger following a campaign by the student group Columbia Prison Divest. Columbia is the first university or college in the United States to take such action.

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