Penn State

Penn State law students work on complex immigration issues

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia looks over paperwork at her office in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia looks over paperwork at her office in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights on Wednesday, July 2, 2014. CDT photo

With immigration in the news more and more, some Penn State law students have stepped into the fray, writing a document that will help lawyers navigate the issue.

The Center for Immigrants’ Rights is a policy clinic launched in 2008, a place where students can explore the subject, becoming advocates for policy, politics and law. They help with real cases and work on community legal education.

With the cooperation of the American Immigration Council and the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, the clinic produced a practice advisory on the “notice to appear.”

“It almost goes through a journey,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, law professor and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights.

According to the professor, the notice to appear isn’t quite as innocuous as it sounds. It is a serious piece of paper, issued by one of the agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, and is similar to the charging docket that a defendant would receive in criminal court. That might be the last similarity with other courts.

“It is a separate animal from the (court of) common pleas or local court,” Wadhia said.

That’s something students are learning as they address problems hitting closer to home, as they did with a DHS raid that hit local Asian restaurants last month. At least 13 people were taken in for questioning by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

ICE said that 10, including nationals from China, Guatemala, Thailand, Mexico and Indonesia, were detained for either being unlawfully in the country or illegally re-entering after being removed. That puts them into a rabbit hole of a system very different from the criminal justice system or civil court.

Local attorney Stephen Fleming says that is where practice advisories like the one the students have produced are helpful.

“Even for a practicing immigration lawyer, I use these all the time,” he said. “It’s a really handy thing to check.”

The document is a 30-page walk-through of the process, starting with who can receive an NTA (any noncitizen facing removal proceedings) to how to negotiate with the government (including negotiating before an NTA is filed) or when having an NTA might be beneficial (like staving off more immediate deportation for other reasons).

According to the advisory: “Practitioners representing noncitizens who may one day be in removal proceedings, or who are currently in removal proceedings, will provide a substantial benefit to their clients by gaining fundamental insights regarding the pre-filing and post-filing options available for challenging or modifying an NTA. “While not every client will benefit from the strategies described in this advisory, it is our hope that noncitizens in a position to use them are afforded that opportunity.”

It’s a system Fleming would like to see mature with changing times. He sees progress, with online systems that allow for better tracking of clients. But he sees room for more, like a better way for families and attorneys to navigate the process, which can often not make sense.

“There are a tremendous amount of people who are underrepresented,” he said. That means law students being exposed to this area of law — one Fleming admits is “not lucrative” — is a good thing for future immigrants in need of an advocate.

“Over the years, I have taught a number of students who are inspired by immigration law,” Wadhia said. “Some are inspired by the work they did in this clinic.”