International Human Rights Law Clinic
In an era of rapid change caused by rising global interdependence, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) at the UC Berkeley School of Law pursues a dual mission: promoting justice at home and abroad and training attorneys for a changing profession. IHRLC marshals the resources of the faculty and students of UC Berkeley to advance the struggle for human rights on behalf of individuals and marginalized communities. It clarifies complex issues, develops innovative policy solutions, and engages in vigorous advocacy. At the same time, IHRLC prepares graduates for an increasingly diverse, competitive, and international legal profession. One of the leading human rights clinics in the country, IHRLC takes advantage of its home in California, the largest and most diverse state in the nation, and builds on Berkeley Law’s commitment to international engagement. Since 1998, IHRLC has completed dozens of projects and trained over 200 students. Learn about the latest clinic news below or read our publications.
The International Human Rights Law Clinic’s 15-year Legacy
By Leslie A. Gordon
Fifteen years after its launch, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) is considered one of the leading human rights clinics in the country with three full-time instructors who oversee 25 students per semester. “The growth reflects the interests of students, the support from the school, and the alums and friends who fund us,” explained clinical professor Laurel E. Fletcher, now the clinic’s director. “We put students at the cutting edge of the human rights movement.”
Roxanna Altholz ’99, now the clinic’s associate director, was one of its first students. With family from Colombia, Altholz had witnessed first-hand the impact of armed conflict and pledged to forge a career in human rights. She chose to enroll at Berkeley Law specifically to gain practical experience with IHRLC.
The clinic’s mission matched her own: to promote human rights on behalf of individuals and marginalized communities at home and abroad; to develop innovative policy solutions; and to engage in vigorous advocacy—all with the ultimate goal of preparing graduates for law practice.
“I lived at the clinic,” recalled Altholz, who worked alongside seven other students and two faculty members on cases and projects. “It was the heart of my law school experience and really formed the foundation of my career.”
After graduating in 1999, Altholz – with encouragement from Fletcher, an early clinic faculty member – worked in Kosovo on a United Nations mission. Altholz later returned to the U.S. to represent death row inmates and then joined an organization suing governments responsible for human rights atrocities in Latin America. She came back to the IHRLC as an instructor in 2005. “One of the most important aspects of the clinic is the mentorship students receive. It extends beyond graduation,” she said.
Since the clinic’s inception, Fletcher has added programming to bring human rights home. “We want to domesticate human rights protections in the U.S. and in local communities,” she said. The clinic also seeks to promote a broader definition of who’s been victimized, such as the LGBT community in El Salvador and male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Uganda. “As a result, we’ve helped extend human rights to groups that have been overlooked and in the process opened up opportunities for our students to make a difference in the lives of human rights victims.”
Fletcher notes three high points among many from the clinic’s 15 years. The IHRLC won its very first case, which was related to discriminatory practices against children of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic. “We made precedent with our victory,” Fletcher explained, “and it showed we could handle complex litigation at the highest level.”
Another highlight was the clinic’s work on behalf of Guantanamo detainees, who, Fletcher said, “were not convicted of any crimes, but got ensnared in the post-9-11 conflict.” The clinic’s work resulted in a book about the detainees’ experiences. “We made a contribution to an urgent issue and offered a perspective that had not received adequate attention.”
The IHRLC also obtained a ground-breaking judgment from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (an arm of the Organization of American States) regarding forced disappearances during Guatemala’s civil war. The clinic litigated the case, with Altholz as the lead attorney, in partnership with a Guatemalan human rights organization. The Inter-American Court found that Guatemala had not only abducted, tortured and secretly executed individuals, but had also engaged in threats and intimidation of the victims’ families.
Like Altholz, other clinic alums went on to rewarding careers in human rights law. Elise Keppler now works as associate director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. After graduating from Berkeley Law in 2001 and spending 18 months at a law firm, Keppler was so “desperate” to return to the human rights work that she quit her job and volunteered at Human Rights Watch until a paying position opened up.
“Working at the IHRLC was hugely formative for me,” Keppler said. “Because of my training at the clinic, I understand the need to be creative and strategic in formulating my responses to real world problems. From my perspective, the role of clinics in general, and human rights clinics in particular, are absolutely essential to the stature of the law school.”
Looking ahead to the clinic’s future, Fletcher is focused on “maintaining our vibrancy,” she said. “I want to focus on deepening the work we do and keeping on the frontier, the leading edge of the human rights movement.” Helping students secure human rights jobs upon graduation is a high priority for Fletcher.
For her part, Altholz believes the IHRLC offers “unparalleled opportunities” for students who want to work in the field. “They get the expert mentorship of the faculty, whose primary interest is the students’ success,” she said. “They teach students to undertake human rights cases with humility and ethics. That’s why students orbit around the clinic even after graduation: because of the high standard and the kinds of projects we do.”
The clinic’s 15th anniversary will be honored during Alumni Weekend with a panel discussion, “Bringing War Criminals to Justice,” on Saturday, Sept. 28, followed by a celebratory dinner.
Berkeley Law Program Helps UC’s Undocumented Students
By Andrew Cohen
Yurie Iwako needed to process the sub-standard hospital care her father received before he passed away. Nina Smirnov needed to move beyond sub-minimum wage, below-the-radar jobs to better support her family. Cristian Aguilar needed to know he wasn’t alone.
They and more than 100 other UC Berkeley undocumented students have received life-changing legal advice from the new Legal Services Program, run by Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC). But while grateful for the program’s tactical guidance in their quest for citizenship, Iwako, Aguilar, and Smirnov are even more grateful for the sense of validation and belonging it has instilled.
“Being undocumented and trying to make your way through college can be a very lonely and isolating experience,” Aguilar said. “The help we get from Berkeley Law gives us a safe space to share our experiences and connect with other undocumented students. Now we don’t have to live in the shadows anymore.”
Led by IHRLC clinical instructor Allison Davenport ’04, the program helps UC Berkeley students determine their eligibility for “deferred action”—a reprieve from deportation under an immigration category known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—and other forms of immigration status.
Created last year, DACA allows undocumented immigrants to receive a work permit, Social Security number, state I.D. card, and driver’s license. It also enables them to work legally for the first time. Announced by President Obama in summer 2012 as an interim measure while Washington hashes out immigration reform, DACA provides protection for two years with the prospect of extensions.
Under Davenport’s supervision, Berkeley Law students Genna Beier ’14 and Habiba Simjee ’14 conduct outreach and consult with potential deferred action beneficiaries. Those who are eligible are matched with either a pro bono attorney or community organization to take their case, depending on its complexity. This year, their work will also involve a research project conducting detailed surveys of undocumented students who participate.
“I love this project because it’s such a great model,” Simjee said. “It combines a lot of elements of what I want to learn—doing outreach, collaborating with other groups on campus, and being part of timely immigration reform work.”
A community organizer before coming to Berkeley Law, Beier worked with a colleague who was undocumented. They registered voters together—“ironic, because she couldn’t vote,” Beier recalled. The woman was detained and endured some harrowing uncertainty before receiving a stay of removal. That jarring experience spurred Beier to pursue immigration work in law school.
“The Legal Services Program is a great bridge between Berkeley Law and Cal’s undergraduate community,” she said. “What I really like about the research project is that there’s a data component and a storytelling component. You need both to effectively make policy makers listen.”
Davenport hopes policy makers will listen to the program’s research—namely undocumented students’ experiences with immigration law and how it has impacted their lives, their families, and their future plans. She will oversee a final report, to be issued toward the end of 2013.
Charting new ground
“This is the first undocumented student program in the country, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” Davenport said. “We’re in talks with other campuses to foster similar programs. And the impact of the work goes beyond the individual students we assist because the knowledge they gain is then shared with peers and family members. They’re quickly looked to as a resource in their own communities, and that ‘train the trainers’ role we play is very gratifying.”
Iwako, Smirnov, and Aguilar—all leaders in the student group Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education (RISE)—have spread the word about various legal options. “When Allison came to RISE and gave her presentation on DACA, I remember thinking, ‘This is why I came to Cal,’” Smirnov said. “To have allies who are that smart and caring makes all the difference in the world.”
For Aguilar, the Legal Services Program lends credibility to his plight. “For a law school like Berkeley to step in the way it has, that helps other people be more open-minded about undocumented student issues and the undocumented community as a whole,” he said.
Iwako admits she was initially scared to apply for deferred action. “DACA was really confusing when it first came out,” she said. “It essentially felt like turning yourself in. Allison and the law students made a huge effort to make everybody comfortable. They were extremely organized and got my case approved immediately. It’s so nice to know there are people on our side who support us and want to make sure we have a future.”