Law and Border

At an admittedly 'not ideal' time, Tulane Law School closes its immigration clinic.



t's safe to say that Tulane Law School was not trying to delay the retirement of 79-year-old legal advocate Elise Cerniglia when it decided to close its immigration law clinic. Yet that may be just one of the ripples of the recent decision, which pulls the plug on the 16-year-old clinic at the end of this school year.

Law School Dean Lawrence Ponoroff says that the clinic was primarily doomed by its limited appeal to students, noting that while Tulane's other law clinics had students competing for its slots, the year-long immigration clinic has not been filling its five annual spots for students. A soon-to-be-launched domestic-violence clinic, notes Ponoroff, seems to better fit the school's objectives.

For the past 40 years, Cerniglia ("Through the Eyes of Elise Cerniglia," Nov. 21, 2000), has advocated for immigrants as an accredited representative for Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services. In the past few months she has pulled back on new cases, as difficult as that is for her. "I feel so bad for some of these people," she laments. "But I'm phasing things out slowly, which is what Tulane should have done with their clinic." The Tulane decision makes rejecting cases that much tougher, she says, because potential clients have even fewer places to turn.

Cerniglia notes that Tulane sent her invaluable assistance this past summer in the form of intern Chloe Dybdahl, now a second-year law student hoping to practice immigration law. To Dybdahl, Tulane's recent decision was a huge blow. "The [immigration] clinic was actually the main reason I went to Tulane," she says.

Chad Ellsworth, a third-year law student, is currently in the immigration clinic, and has already been hired by a New York City law firm that specializes in immigration law. "I don't think it was the only factor," says Ellsworth, "but the Tulane immigration law clinic is definitely well-known."

Ellsworth is "deeply saddened" by the closing, he says, especially because immigrants are not -- unlike U.S. citizens -- entitled to free legal representation. "They have to depend on others," he notes.

Both Ellsworth and Dybdahl went through a clinic prerequisite, an immigration-law class taught by adjunct professor Larry Fabacher, who has been practicing immigration law in town since 1974. Fabacher says that aliens who need representation already have "very few" places to turn.

"There aren't many immigration lawyers around, and other than pro bono cases [taken by them], there's Loyola's legal clinic and Catholic Charities -- especially Elise, who takes on the most thankless cases." Other options? "That's it," he says. "That's all there is."

Immigration law clinics have traditionally filled a vital role, says Ben Johnson, director of advocacy for the Washington D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association, noting that 60 percent of all immigrants who currently appear in front of an immigration judge do so without an attorney. Clinics have also been at the forefront of immigration law, says Johnson, recalling the time when Tulane won asylum for two Chinese women who had violated their government's policy limiting the number of children they could have. Soon afterward, he says, Congress passed legislation saying that China's policy should be considered persecution.

"Clinics have often brought these cases to light," he says. "They pursue them in court and get the kind of attention so that Congress is aware of the problem and can act."

Dean Ponoroff acknowledges that, given the heightened need for immigration attorneys after Sept. 11, "the timing [of the clinic's closure] was not ideal."

Fabacher recently represented Hady Omar, a Muslim who has now been released without criminal charges but who was held for 10 weeks in a Louisiana federal penitentiary because he had booked his flight at the same Kinko's as Mohammed Atta. But you don't have to be Hady Omar to have your case scrutinized, notes Fabacher: "Everybody [now] gets a second glance where before they might not have gotten even half a glance."

And the need for immigration attorneys had already dramatically increased in the mid-1990s, he says, due to two major federal bills -- the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Alien and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Among other things, those laws made it easier to deport noncitizens who had committed crimes while living in the United States.

"Since that time, there has been a crying need for more competent immigration lawyers," says Fabacher.

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