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.”