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Various Notre Dame Law Students Help Immigrants Obtain Asylum

Returning from Chicago to South Bend after being granted asylum there for her client, Nereida Lopez was in tears as she spoke to her parents on the phone.

The then Notre Dame Law School student knew her work was important, but it wasn’t until her long drive back to campus in March 2020 that it hit her: she had changed the lives of the Guatemalan woman and her children whom Lopez had represented. in courts both inside and outside the country.

Although Lopez’s story is not the same as that of her clients, she knew firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate the immigration court system — and what that means for those who get the help they need.

Lopez, who now works with the National Immigrant Justice Center as an attorney, and her family faced immigration issues after moving from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico to the United States in 2002. The family came in America for his father’s business, but shortly after arriving they discovered that a mistake had been made by an American paralegal who had helped him fill out his paperwork. When he applied for permanent residence, the forms did not indicate that he had a family and children.

As a result, the family began eviction proceedings, which lasted nearly 10 years, Lopez said. During this time, the family could not at any time return to their country of origin.

Lopez said her experiences growing up inspired her to do community service, specifically focusing on improving the lives of immigrants.

“I’ve seen how the system works and the delays, and how difficult it is to get through the system and get fair representation if you don’t know the language or can’t afford it” , said Lopez, a spring 2021 graduate. “I wanted to go and help people in similar situations to his family.”

For Lopez, the impact she had on her client and his family didn’t hit her until after the case was closed.

“I remember kissing her. She was carrying her newborn, and she was crying and saying, ‘Thank you,’ and she couldn’t believe it,” Lopez said.

Lisa Koup

As part of an internship at Notre Dame Law, students work on asylum cases, usually in pairs, for immigrants in Indiana. The Asylum Project is led by Adjunct Professor of Law Lisa Koop, who is also Associate Director of Legal Services at NIJC.

The United States Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Policy Manual allows law students and law graduates who are not yet admitted to practice law to appear in immigration court if certain conditions are met and if the appearance is approved by the immigration judge. The resolution allows students, if supervised by a licensed attorney, to act as attorneys in court and work through the entire case from start to finish.

Most recently, the November 2021 externship resulted in the granting of asylum to a mother and her daughter fleeing gender-based violence in Latin America.

As the program has continued to grow, Koop said he’s seen more students who speak Spanish and are first-generation law students get involved, which has brought “a really unique and powerful perspective to the work.”

Nereida Lopez, left, with a client and her child after helping them gain asylum in immigration court. Lopez worked on the case while interning at Notre Dame Law School. (Photo courtesy of Nereida Lopez)

Lopez spent a year in the NIJC Externship and was selected as one of Notre Dame Law’s 2021 Shaffer Public Interest Fellows last spring. The scholarship—named for professor emeritus and former dean Thomas L. Shaffer and funded by donor support—covers the salary and benefits of two Notre Dame law graduates to work for two years at a nonprofit organization. nonprofit providing legal services to low-income or other underrepresented populations.

Emily Mollinedo, who works with the Illinois Prison Project, was the other recipient.

Lopez currently works with asylum seekers on alternatives to detention, focusing specifically on advocating for the removal of ankle monitors, which she says can cause physical pain and create social stigma. Additionally, Lopez said she compiles data to help the NIJC’s fight against ankle surveillance policies.

Like Lopez, third-year law student Sophia Aguilar also helped a mother and her young child gain asylum in Chicago immigration court.

Aguilar, like Lopez, was partially inspired by her family to get involved in pro bono immigration work. Aguilar said her family moved from El Salvador to the United States in the 1980s, and the family she worked with in her recent case last fall came from a town not far from where her grandmother once lived.

“Helping out my community is extremely important to me,” Aguilar said. “…It was powerful for me to not only work for her, but to see how easily roles can be reversed. By accident, by birth, I have the things that I have. It was really humiliating.

Aguilar worked through the entire case, from filing documents to presenting oral arguments. After filing the asylum application, she was able to help advance her client’s court date and made closing arguments, she said.

“When I started, I don’t think I fully understood (the impact),” Aguilar said. “It wasn’t until we went to court and got asylum that I fully understood. I’m not sure anyone but Lisa really understood what was going on at the time. It was amazing – something really hard to describe unless you were there.

“…Something that struck me was I asked how she was going to celebrate, and she said she was going home and she was with her family, and it’s a party “, continued Aguilar. “…It’s someone’s life and it’s just a privilege and an honor to help someone get that basic right they need.”

Aguilar said she hopes to have a general litigation practice, but plans to continue volunteering in the future to continue helping her community more.

Since the program’s inception around 2013, Koop said it has helped “dozens” of asylum seekers win their cases.•