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New Stanford Law School Clinic To Offer Pro Bono Legal Services For Immigrants

Publication Date: 
March 04, 2005
Stanford Law School

Sonya Sanchez isn't a lawyer yet. But thanks to a new clinical training program at Stanford Law School, the second-year law student already is helping two poor immigrant clients--one from Mexico and the other from Romania. Both women fled abusive husbands and need Sanchez's free legal assistance to maintain their residency in the United States.

"I feel very comfortable with these types of clients," says Sanchez, a New Mexico native who previously advocated for Native American domestic violence survivors in her home state. "It's rewarding to be able to work with such strong women and feel like maybe I can do something to empower them."

Sanchez is one of eight Stanford law students participating this semester in the law school's new Immigrants' Rights Clinic. The six-week-old program, to be marked with a grand opening celebration March 8, gives Stanford law students the opportunity to represent real clients for academic credit under the supervision of law school faculty.

To prepare their cases, students in the Immigrants' Rights Clinic interview clients and witnesses, investigate facts, write pleadings, present cases at hearings, develop strategy, and conduct their own legal research. Some, like Sanchez, are working to secure rights for local immigrant survivors of domestic violence under the recently passed Violence Against Women Act. Others are representing immigrants who face deportation proceedings because of very old or minor criminal convictions.

According to clinic director Professor Jayashri Srikantiah, the need for such services is great--particularly in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, where around a third of the population is foreign-born.

"In terms of deportation defense, there are almost no organizations that provide pro bono services, so we really are serving almost a desperate need," says Srikantiah, an associate professor of law who came to the United States from India with her family in 1974. "Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants in deportation proceedings are not entitled to free court-appointed lawyers, so they just end up representing themselves. It's often a really sad situation."

In addition to representing clients referred by local immigration agencies, students enrolled in the clinic attend seminars on immigration law and do advocacy work on behalf of local immigrants' rights organizations. Sanchez is preparing a feasibility assessment for an on-site law clinic at NextDoor Solutions, a domestic violence advocacy center and shelter in San Jose. Other students are busy looking into prison conditions for immigrant detainees in Northern California, writing know-your-rights brochures for immigrants who need welfare, and organizing a March summit meeting for the Bay Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition.

As Srikantiah explains, tightened immigration policies in the wake of September 11 have made it essential for today's law students to hone a variety of talents to help their foreign-born clients. While it's important that students learn how to work with individual clients, write briefs, argue in courts, and write affidavits, she says, "they also need multidisciplinary skills, like knowing how to run press conferences, how to lobby, and how to do grassroots work."

Srikantiah's own career is illustrative. Before coming to Stanford, she served as associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, where she focused on protecting civil liberties and civil rights in the post-September 11 environment. Among her highly publicized cases was a race discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a Bangladeshi-American prohibited from flying because of his ethnicity and a class-action lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration on behalf of innocent passengers who were repeatedly stopped, questioned, and harassed in connection with the government's secret "no fly" list.

She also developed know-your-rights materials and training programs for South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant communities contacted for questioning by the FBI, offered hundreds of press interviews, and spoke at numerous conferences and public gatherings, including community forums at Santa Clara; Stanford; and University of California, Berkeley, (Boalt Hall) law schools.

Stanford's new Immigrants' Rights Clinic is one of seven that the law school offers to complement its regular curriculum. Others include the Stanford Community Law Clinic, which provides legal assistance to low-income Bay Area clients; a criminal prosecution clinic where students work under the guidance of experienced prosecutors from the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, and in-house clinics dealing with cyberlaw, education, Supreme Court litigation, and the environment.

The clinics are overseen by Stanford law Professor Lawrence Marshall, who recently joined the faculty after many years at the Northwestern University School of Law. Marshall and his clinical students made national headlines in the 1990s for their work on behalf of several wrongly convicted Illinois death row inmates. The effort ultimately influenced Governor George Ryan to commute the sentences of all prisoners on the state's death row before he left office in 2003.

Marshall says the Immigrants' Rights Clinic fits nicely with Stanford Law School's stated plan to develop one of the top clinical programs in the country, and is "particularly timely given today's political climate vis-à-vis immigrants." Marshall explains that "this new clinic affords Stanford students a spectacular opportunity to work with an extraordinarily talented clinical professor on cases that change the lives of the clinic's clients and serve to improve the law."

Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer is equally enthusiastic. "We want and hope to offer an array of clinics that, simultaneously, offer our students a chance to learn important fields and provide necessary legal services to underserved communities," he said. "An immigration law clinic provides a wonderful opportunity in this respect, and having someone of Jayashri's quality to lead it ensures that it will meet our high expectations."

A celebration to mark the opening of the Stanford Immigrants' Rights Clinic will begin at 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 8, in the Stanford Law School Faculty Lounge. Speakers will include Srikantiah, Marshall, and Kramer, as well as representatives from Bay Area immigrant advocacy organizations. Guests will include local immigrants' rights lawyers and community advocates, as well as clinical faculty and students from Stanford and other law schools.

CONTACT: Judith Romero, assistant director, Stanford Law School Communications, 650 723.2232,

COMMENT: Jayashri Srikantiah, director, Immigrants' Rights Clinic, 650 724.2442,