In March, when students in Cornell Law’s Afghanistan Assistance Clinic set out for a Day of Service at New York City’s 26 Federal Plaza immigration courtrooms, they planned to simply observe hearings and screenings of newly arrived immigrants.
Instead, they found upwards of fifty individuals with babies, spouses, and strollers crowded the halls and waiting room, their faces tense and already looking defeated by the prospect of not seeing a lawyer that day. Wi-Fi was limited, outlets unavailable, and interpreters in short supply, with just two attorneys from Catholic Charities working the crowd.
In the moment, Clinic Director Hilary Fraser and the twelve clinic students chose to help, drawing on a key clinical skill: problem-solving in real time. Some students with foreign language skills were able to converse directly with immigrants, occasionally consulting their phones to translate unfamiliar words. Other students used an interpretation service, facilitating phone conversations between immigrants and interpreters.
Back in the courtroom, Cornell Law students sprawled across the wooden benches, creating spaces to review court documents and complete computerized interview records. In the end, the Day of Service accomplished more than intended: interviews with more than a dozen immigrants, who shared first-hand accounts of oppression, harrowing travel, economic misery, and physical violence.
Several students commented on the suffering the immigrants experienced and the bravery and resilience they displayed in traveling to the United States. These conversations left students humbled, frustrated with the immigration system, and proud that they could make a small contribution that day. Clinic students remarked on the spirit of helpfulness communicated by their classmates back in Ithaca who were quick to help translate.
Students were impressed with the training they’d received from Catholic Charities and with the process created to serve as many people as possible at one time. Still, given the immense need for immigration legal assistance, “It feels like a small drop in the ocean,” said Edith Perret, LL.M. ’23.
“People in our country’s immigration system are more than just names or A-numbers. They are people with stories to tell,” said Danielle Dominguez ’23. “I found this day to be very meaningful—as a daughter of refugees, immigration is part of my life’s story. I am the product of the U.S. immigration system. This was one of those moments that reminds me of the type of lawyer I want to be when I graduate: one who gives back to the community and leads with compassion and understanding.”