By Andrew Cohen
At the recent Sax Prize Luncheon, Berkeley Law instructors Jamie O’Connell and Linda Tam tried hard to sum up all the reasons why Lindsay Harris won this year’s award. It wasn’t easy.
Harris’s accomplishments working for the both the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) and the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) were many. At the April 21 Sax Prize Luncheon, O’Connell and Tam offered abundant praise—and thanks—for her phenomenal productivity, deft handling of complex issues, excellence in legal research, and tireless dedication.
“Lindsay was a real force of nature,’’ Tam said. “The amount of work she accomplished week to week was just astounding … for me it felt like dog years.”
Established in memory of lecturer Brian M. Sax ’69, the Sax Prize for Excellence in Clinical Advocacy is given annually to a graduating student in a Berkeley Law clinic who demonstrates excellence in advocacy, professional judgment, and reflection on the lawyer’s role. A faculty committee chose Harris among nominees from the law school’s various clinics. Desiree Ramirez ’09 received honorable mention for her work at the Death Penalty Clinic, where she helped draft amicus curiae briefs and interviewed almost 30 witnesses and family members in capital cases.
At IHRLC, Harris worked with the Washington, D.C.-based Genocide Intervention Network to develop legislation that would improve the U.S. government’s response to genocide and crimes against humanity. She researched legal and policy issues and analyzed options for the legislation’s design. “All of her work,” said O’Connell, “required incredible intelligence, creativity, and a staggering work ethic.”
Tam, who directs EBCLC’s Immigration Health Project, lauded Harris’ work with HIV-positive immigrants who were facing visa revocation, seeking asylum, and applying for immigration relief as domestic violence victims.
Harris credited her semester at IHRLC for incorporating patience in her advocacy. “I can’t say that I’m a natural reflecter,” she joked in her acceptance speech. “Those who know me would agree that I generally do first and think later. But I’m proud to say that my experience (with IHRLC) has instilled in me a capacity and patience for reflection I never thought possible.”
EBCLC’s Star Advocate
Harris spent three semesters at EBCLC, which she said, “meant more to me than I can possibly explain.” In her speech, she described remarkable experiences with four clients that required countless hours of passionate representation.
During Harris’ first semester, she worked with a young Kenyan couple that received permanent U.S. residence by winning a diversity visa lottery. But the day they arrived with their 1-year-old baby the mother learned for the first time, due to an error at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, that she was HIV-positive. She was placed into removal proceedings—the U.S. restricts the admission of HIV-positive immigrants and visitors to the country—and Harris is now pursuing a retroactively-granted green card for her in immigration court.
Harris also worked with a Tanzanian client who came to America at age 15. Through a series of unfortunate events, including an attempted rape by her uncle and caregiver and the abduction of one of her children, she never completed high school and eventually became homeless and undocumented. Two decades later, Harris was charged with advancing her immigration application.
But she couldn’t delve into the case without first addressing the broken hot water faucet in her client’s house—which made her children sick and pushed her PG&E bill into the thousands. Harris also had to fend off the client’s threatened eviction and even accompanied her to a traffic court hearing.
“Her strength and dignity in spite of all of this were inspiring to me,” Harris said. “I learned the effect domestic or sexual abuse can have in derailing a woman’s life, especially a young immigrant woman lacking social networks and family support in this country.”
Harris also worked with an Algerian man who feared persecution at home on account of his sexual orientation and HIV status. It took weeks for him to remove his sunglasses and make eye contact with Harris, who successfully argued on his behalf in immigration court. “More importantly,” she said, “I was part of this client’s transformation from harboring feelings of deep shame at his sexual orientation to eventually finding peace with himself.”
Hoping for a more relaxed final law-school semester, Harris signed up for just eight hours a week at EBCLC but, as Tam said, “she was sucked into the vortex of more than 20.” Harris represents a woman from the Caribbean region who fled persecution in 1994, arriving in Florida by boat. She and her young children were immediately apprehended, but her case neither went to immigration court nor received any official status. Now suffering from AIDS and the effects of a serious stroke, she is bed-ridden—and unable to communicate.
“I’m not going to lie and pretend I never cried or lost sleep or over these cases,” said Harris. “I cried and felt frustrated many times. That’s part of my professional evolution as an advocate, coming to terms with the limits of my work as a lawyer and the lines of professional conduct that I must define and walk for myself.”
A Natural Progression
Harris is no stranger to advocating for the disenfranchised—or to being recognized for her efforts. In her one year between college and law school, she worked in Africa as managing director of a fair-trade nonprofit organization operating in seven African countries.
Last year, she won the UC Berkeley Golden Circle Outstanding Student Leader Award thanks largely to her relentless work on behalf of Berkeley Law’s student-run California Asylum Representation Clinic (CARC), which trains students to serve as legal advocates for asylum seekers from all over the world.
Under Harris’ leadership as CARC Central Coordinator last year, a record 117 students participated in the program and represented clients in their affirmative asylum interviews. Amazingly, after appeals, the clinic obtained winning verdicts in all of its cases for the entire 2007-08 school year. Harris also forged a partnership with Jayne Fleming ’00 of the law firm Reed Smith, which now provides CARC financial sponsorship, mentoring, and training program assistance.
“I’d love to become a clinical professor,” says Harris, who will next clerk for Judge Harry Pregerson on the U.S. 9th Circuit. “All the things I’ve done at CARC, IHRLC, and EBCLC have given me great insight and tremendous respect for that kind of work. I guess I just never really want to leave the clinics.”
Photos by James Block