It was a significant first – for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and for Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
On Wednesday evening, June 15, TJSL hosted a free immigration clinic presented by AILA, during its annual convention being held in San Diego. AILA’s goal: to serve the community here while they are in town.
Nearly 100 people from the community turned up to hear mini-classes on “Immigration 101” and an overview of the naturalization process. They all received free one-on-one consultations to get legal advice from the nearly 80 AILA member attorneys on hand who came to work pro bono – someone who spoke their language. And there were AILA attorneys who spoke many languages – from Spanish to French to Afrikaans to Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka.
"From my perspective, the tremendous turnout shows the extensive need for legal services/representation regarding immigration law," said TJSL Professor Ilene Durst, who teaches immigration law." Professor Durst worked closely with the ABA's Immigration Justice Project to bring the clinic to TJSL. "It also shows that there are attorneys willing to volunteer their services in immigration law, but we all have to do better to protect the rights and interests of this essentially voiceless population," she added.
The lobby of the law school was packed with immigrants looking for information about U.S. citizenship and the free legal consultation about their immigration case. There was even a busload of Haitian nationals whose visit was organized by a community group.
“This is what AILA is all about,” said Lorna De Bono, an immigration attorney from Los Angeles and an AILA member.
“This is the first time AILA has offered free legal advice to the community where we are holding our national convention,” said Enrique Arevalo, another Los Angeles immigration attorney.
“It’s all about giving back,” said Arevalo’s colleague, Victor Nieblas, AILA’s National Secretary, who also practices immigration law in L.A. “We want to do as much as we can for the people of the San Diego community.”
Nieblas said the clients at the workshop got an initial consultation with one of the AILA attorneys and then a referral to a reputable immigration attorney here in San Diego who can help them.
Many AILA lawyers wore buttons that said “Stop Notario Fraud!,” referring to a situation where some people become licensed as notaries in the U.S. and then practice law without a license. They rip-off people who seek immigration law advice and who think the U.S. notarios are competent legal officials as they are in Mexico. The practice takes advantage of the difference in the U.S. and Mexican legal systems, often with costly and disastrous results for the unsuspecting.
San Diego immigration attorney Barbara Strickland is one of the leaders in the fight against unscrupulous notarios and she was glad to be there at the clinic. “You feel like you are really helping people by educating them and preventing fraud among notarios,” she explained.
“This shows the spirit of volunteerism our attorneys have,” said Susan Timmons, Director of Pro Bono Programs for AILA. “They could be enjoying opening night at the convention and spending time networking with their friends, but they are here at this beautiful law school serving the city where we are meeting. I’m thrilled.”
“I hope somebody has thanked the law school for providing this facility and all of the volunteers,” said Jonathan Wong, an immigration attorney for the Oakland firm of Donahue Gallagher Woods. Wong himself speaks Spanish, Mandarin, French, Russian and German.
“This is a great event,“ said Spring 2011 TJSL graduate Emily Wietzel who wants to practice immigration law. She was there with third-year TJSL student Beth Honerkamp to network with practicing immigration lawyers. “There need to be more workshops like this,” added Wietzel.
Wietzel will be happy to know that AILA plans to hold these free immigration clinics from now on in every city where they convene. And it all began at TJSL in San Diego.