At 25, William Mitchell’s immigration clinic still helps clients — and develops students

When Paula Duthoy, the instructor for William Mitchell law school’s immigration clinic, recently attended a ceremony celebrating the clinic’s 25th anniversary, she ran into one of the first clients the clinic took on when she started supervising it a decade ago.

The Somali woman’s case was a complicated one, involving refugee status, her marriage to a first cousin, a trip to Canada where she birthed a child, and plenty of “hounding and pounding,” Duthoy said, from the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).

Her case required hundreds of hours of work by several students, but in the end their effort was rewarded. A month ago — 10 years after arriving in America — the woman was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

It was just the latest victory for the clinic, which for a quarter-century now has offered pro bono help for immigrants facing deportation and other legal troubles.

When William Mitchell launched the clinic, it was one of the first of its kind (possibly even the first) in the country. It was a shared idea between immigration attorney Sam Myers, who was then working for the International Institute of Minnesota, and Bernie Becker, a William Mitchell professor.

He had to do something

Myers didn’t have any experience running an immigration clinic; the closest he’d come was doing legal-aid work as a law student in Virginia. But when he saw a funding shortage lead to immigration caseworker layoffs at the institute and elsewhere, he knew he had to do something.

“It was the most fun thing I’d ever done,” Myers said. “I’m very proud of it.”

Myers and Becker sat down in the fall of 1983 with seven students and a stack of cases.

And they got right to work.

“Bernie and I ran it like a law firm,” Myers said. There were no lectures, and only occasional instruction unrelated to the caseload. “It was clear that it (the clinic) was about getting benefits for people.”

Students pair up or work alone

Little has changed since then. Students head to the Bloomington immigration court, scan the first appearance dockets, and talk with anyone who isn’t represented. When they find cases to take on (and there’s never a shortage), they pair up or work alone, depending on the load. They’re all intensely supervised by the clinic’s instructor, as well as local immigration attorneys who volunteer to help the clinic.

Sometimes there are courtroom appearances that the attorneys have to take on, but students tackle the brunt of the work, which typically involves paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork, from writing briefs to scanning thousands of pages of dense laws and documents.

The clinic usually has close to two dozen open cases at any given time, which students track regardless of holidays and summer vacations. The cases represent clients from across the world, the vast majority dealing with deportation and/or refugee and asylum status, plus other issues.

Caseload nationalities broadened

When the clinic opened it largely served Vietnamese, Laotian and other Southeast Asia refugees, but has since followed “the politics of the world,” Duthoy said, taking on clients from Somalia and other parts of Africa, as well from across Latin America.

For many students over the years, Duthoy said, the clinic has been a “a defining moment of their lives.”

“They didn’t realize what their clientele could be; they had a preconceived notion that they would never have this kind of client.”

Take Duthoy’s life, for instance.

She took the clinic while she was a student at William Mitchell, and after graduating in 1990, her experience led her to work as an attorney for Centro Legal, one of the largest legal-aid organizations in the state for Latinos.

And then 10 years ago, she returned to help run the clinic, to help launch a few more careers and continue serving immigrants, with hope that even if she has to wait until the clinic’s next anniversary 25 years down the road, she’ll run into another client her students helped with one final piece of paperwork: an application for U.S. citizenship.

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