Amy Godshall Is Up to Her Elbows in Public Interest Work

As Amy Godshall ’23 looks back on her journey to law school, one moment that stands out is a conversation in a driveway in Burkina Faso. Marie, her Burkinabé mother figure, was distraught over her husband’s decision to send their daughter to live with his extended family five hours away. Godshall recalls, “As Marie relayed the situation to me, visibly outraged with her husband, her anger stopped short of questioning his gender-based authority.”

Having recently earned an undergraduate degree in social work from Southeastern University, Godshall was in the country working with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC-BF). “Living there for three years was the most challenging and formative experience of my life, but not in the ways that I had anticipated,” she says. “Surprisingly, the most difficult aspect of living and working in Burkina Faso was simply being a woman. Experiencing this structural oppression against women drastically shaped the lens through which I view gender discrimination and ignited my passion for promoting international gender justice.”

She began that work while still at the nongovernmental organization, overseeing MCCBF’s contribution to a collective grant proposal for projects bolstering women’s rights and maternal/child access to healthcare and connecting MCC-BF with a female-led partner organization that works to sensitize communities to the importance of women’s rights and girls’ education.

“[Clinics] have allowed me to do the public interest work that I want to do for the rest of my life and have helped me develop my passion for immigration law.”

Amy Godshall ’23

By the time she returned to the United States, Godshall already knew she wanted to become a lawyer. She set her sights on Cornell Law, eager to participate in the Gender Justice Clinic taught by Professor Elizabeth Brundige and take classes such as Law and Social Change: Comparative Law in Africa, with Professor Muna Ndulo.

Cornucopia of Clinics
Once at the Law School, Godshall wasted no time getting hands-on experience. She worked on several gender-related asylum and refugee cases through the 1L Immigration Law and Advocacy Clinic, the Gender Justice Clinic, the Afghanistan Assistance Clinic, and the Transnational Disputes Clinic. These experiences broadened her interest in international gender justice to include its intersection with U.S. immigration law. “While it is not my place to lead the Burkinabé women’s rights movement, for example,” she says, “I can specialize in U.S. immigration law and help women fight being deported back to their abusers.”

Clinics have been Godshall’s favorite part of law school, by far. “They have allowed me to do the public interest work that I want to do for the rest of my life and have helped me develop my passion for immigration law. Also, my clinic professors have been incredible mentors. I have learned so much from working alongside them, and I strive to make them proud.”

She mentions that Brundige and Professor Stephen Yale Loehr ‘81 in particular have gone out of their way to support and encourage her throughout law school. “They are both amazing professors and mentors, and I enjoyed learning so much from working with them.”

Godshall has also had another key supporter in her work and studies. She notes, “My amazing and supportive husband gets all the credit for keeping me (somewhat) sane!”

Beyond the school year, Godshall also worked on a variety of immigration cases through summer internships with the African Services Committee and Catholic Charities’ Immigration Program. During her first year of law school, she even squeezed in an internship with the New York State Division of Human Rights in January.

Extracurricular Advocacy
Beginning in the fall of 2021, Godshall was also part of a group of students working to help Afghans in the United States apply for humanitarian parole on behalf of their relatives stuck in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban, which has systematically targeted those with connections to the United States. In theory, these applications would have been a quick way for the U.S. government to allow Afghan allies into country.

The experience provided both more advocacy under Godshall’s belt and a further goad to address the systems of power she has repeatedly encountered in her clinical work. Aware of the time-sensitive and high-stakes circumstances of those they were attempting to help, she and her colleagues rushed to submit as many applications as they could, only to see the U.S. government sit on more than 40,000 applications for over a year.

She remarks, “learning about these inhumane systems motivates me to spend my career reforming our immigration system. The current system is unacceptable, and I want to push for improvements.”

Taking on Florida
She’ll have the chance to start right away, thanks to a Frank H.T. Rhodes Public Interest Law Fellowship through the Law School. Her fellowship work, with the ACLU of Florida, will involve impact litigation, advocacy, and movement lawyering focused on the state’s immigration detention centers, which have garnered hundreds of complaints alleging racist, sexist, and otherwise inhumane treatment of immigration detainees.

Godshall notes that, at Florida’s Baker County Immigration Detention Center, Black and Latinx detainees have been systematically targeted for dehumanizing harassment and beatings. In one instance, women were limited to thirty sanitary pads per month after they were accused of “abusing” the open supply (they were using them to keep warm in an unbearably cold facility), and when 100 of those affected staged a hunger strike, the facility’s administration cut off all access to water until the strike ended.

Additionally, immigration detainees have limited access to legal information and counsel, and those who do manage to acquire representation face impediments to speaking privately with their attorneys as they discuss the confidential, sensitive, and often traumatic facts of their deportation cases.

She says, “My project is designed to investigate and end these blatant human rights violations, to improve access to counsel for people in immigration detention, and to advocate for increased cultural competency, cultural humility, and empathy across the immigration detention system.” She plans to begin with Baker and then expand to other Florida immigration detention centers, as well as to share her work with other ACLU state affiliates.

In It for the Long Haul
The fellowship is just the beginning of a career that Godshall intends to spend fighting to bring more humanity into our immigration system.

“While my clinic work and internships have been rewarding, I have repeatedly been struck by how inhumane, inefficient, and racist the U.S. immigration system was effectively designed to be. Unnecessary and unreasonable barriers have been carefully placed at every turn to keep certain people from successfully navigating their way to citizenship.”

In addition to continuing to work towards immigration detention reform, she also wants to improve the asylum system. “The system is unnecessarily difficult and complex—purposefully so, to keep people out. I want to improve access to counsel, so that more people have a better chance at an asylum grant. I want asylum seekers to have a fair chance at a successful application even if they don’t have counsel (currently the majority of unrepresented asylum seekers are denied). I want to increase efficiency throughout the process, so that people aren’t waiting four-plus years while their applications are pending.”

All the while, she’ll be keeping an eye on the big picture. “As law students, we’re often taught what the law is, how to follow these rules, and how precedent determines the outcome of our cases. But we need to take more time to step back from ‘what the law is’ and reconsider ‘what the law should be.’ We can work to change and improve the system and make this world a better place.”