A Justice School: Teaching Forced Migration Through Experiential Learning

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Intercultural Human Rights Law Review


The need for committed and competent public interest lawyers has never been greater. We are at a unique juncture in U.S. history where there is both a supply and demand for social justice lawyers. Law schools, however, still fall short in their support and preparation of students who want to be public interest lawyers. Legal education still tends to reproduce social hierarchies, channeling top students into high paying jobs at big firms, with only the very top and most persistent students qualifying for judicial clerkships or a handful of prestigious fellowships. It is vital that students see from Day One of law school that they can use their legal training to make a positive difference in the world, and that throughout their three years of law school they learn the doctrine, develop the litigation skills, and have the kinds of experiential opportunities that will prepare them for this work.

This article demonstrates how experiential learning in law school can prepare students for the practice of law and, if done well, instill in them a life-long commitment to social justice. The success of these efforts ultimately turns on working collaboratively with student leaders with a shared commitment to immigrant justice, winning the support of key people in the administration, and ensuring that the experience for students is both emotionally and intellectually rewarding. Our signature achievement was the Karnes Pro Bono Project. Teams of students have, on three separate occasions, worked side by side with attorneys and staff from RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, at the Karnes family detention center, assisting Central American parents and children through the credible fear screening process and helping them qualify for asylum and release from detention. Not only have the students acquired a deeper understanding of the legal, political, and practical obstacles to asylum faced by refugees at the border. They have had the deeply moving and transformative experience of meeting with detained families seeking asylum, hearing their testimonials, preparing their statements, counseling them, helping them through the credible fear screening process, and ultimately learning their fates.

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