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Access clinic: a win-win for Minnesota’s rural immigrants and U of M law students

Students and volunteers from 2018
Courtesy of the Binger Center
Students and volunteers from 2018, when it was a volunteer program, from left: Benjamin Gronowski, Xinge He, Zakaria Almulhim, Chelsea Bodin, Tae Eun Ahn, and Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans.

There is a great, unmet need for legal representation among immigrant communities in rural Minnesota. So when a caravan of students, professors and volunteer attorneys from the University of Minnesota Law School arrived at a community center in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Windom to run a free legal clinic, they expected there’d be at least a handful of local people there.

Turns out a well-connected community organizer had gotten word out about the event, and when the U of M group walked in, they saw that that the crowd that had gathered was significantly larger than a handful.

“When we got there,” recalled Georgette Marling, a third-year law student from Alabama, “there was a line of people waiting to be seen.”

Everyone in the mostly Spanish-speaking crowd was anxious for legal advice about immigration issues, something that’s distressingly hard to come by in many of the increasingly diverse communities that dot this part of the state.

“Legal access is a big problem in many rural Minnesota communities,” explained Julio Zelaya, program coordinator for the Minnesota ACLU’s Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. He was the organizer who let people know about the clinic: “It is widely known that there are communities in this part of the state that don’t have an immigration attorney for 100 miles.”

New needs for new Americans

In the past, many towns in Greater Minnesota may not have had much need for an attorney steeped in immigration law. But these days, as the workforce in the region’s agricultural industry leans heavily toward immigrant labor, many new residents are discovering that they need the services of an attorney familiar with the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.

Nerves are jangled in the state’s rural immigrant communities, said Deepinder Mayell, executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, a program of the law school created in 2013 to provide pro bono legal services to immigrant and refugee communities.  

Deepinder Mayell
Courtesy of the Binger Center
Deepinder Mayell
High-profile Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE ) raids that first took place a decade ago at large Minnesota agricultural processing plants in Worthington and  St. James sent many members of the local immigrant community undercover. Now, with anti-immigrant political sentiment creating pressure to arrest and detain workers who have entered the country illegally, there is growing interest in the local immigrant community for seeking legal relief for longstanding immigration claims.

“Many of the people that show up at our clinics have been living in their communities for decades but have never talked to an immigration attorney,” Mayell said. “These legal clinics help them take the first step toward understanding what they need to do to gain legal status — or continue to live under the threat of potential deportation.”

Last year, in response to these growing needs, the Binger Center created a volunteer project known as the Rural Immigrant Access Initiative, where groups ran free legal clinics in rural Minnesota communities. Earlier this year, the center transformed the project into The Rural Immigrant Access Clinic, a for-credit class that offers a small group of law students the opportunity to learn firsthand how to help immigrants understand potential avenues for relief, including protection claims like asylum or family-based petitions.

“There’s always been a need for legal services in rural communities,” Mayell said. “We’ve always heard about this need. The new administration created a great deal of anxiety and stress and fear in immigrant communities in Greater Minnesota. This class gives us the opportunity to give a group of law students practical, real-world experience — while assisting members of these immigrant communities.”

Get the word out

Because the fear of deportation is so great among in many immigrant communities in Greater Minnesota, it can be hard to get people to come together for a public event. There is great concern that families with mixed immigration status may be broken up, so many want to stay undercover as much as possible, Zelaya said. In small, isolated communities where social services are hard to access and legal representation is limited, that problem is only magnified.

“I believe that the most vulnerable people in Minnesota are the undocumented residents of rural areas,” Zelaya said. This very vulnerability makes it all the more important that individuals find out if they have avenues for immigration relief.

Part of Zelaya’s job is to go out into the community, gain trust, build relationships and let people know that he may be able to help them get one step closer to legal residency.

“My primary role as an organizer is collaborating with local community leaders,” Zelaya said. “I attend church services and get to know the priests well. I announce meetings and legal clinics after the litany. Building connections means door-knocking, lifting up windshield wipers and putting fliers underneath them.”

But building trust doesn’t happen overnight, he added: “It is important to have a personal invitation, for people to see that I have their best interests in mind, to know that they can trust me. Sometimes I have to come back two or three or even four times.”

A ‘foot in the door’

Not every immigrant worker in rural Minnesota has a clear path to legal residency, but understanding your rights and protecting family members is key, Zelaya said.  Attending a Rural Immigrant Access Clinic is a good first step to doing just that.

“A lot of times it is that initial foot in the door to start the journey of changing one’s status. There are many times when individuals do have a legal hook to remain in the U.S. in a legal way. At the clinics, they work hard to understand that.”

Because they understand the skittishness of the local immigrant population, Mayell said that his group is happy to hold legal clinics wherever attendees feel the most comfortable.

“We do our sessions in a host of different environments,” he said. “We’ve done them in gyms, public libraries, church basements. We are not out posting giant signs. It takes a while to build up trust.” And because most immigrants work at local factories or processing plants, the clinics are usually held after work hours. “We meet around the schedules that are good for the communities,” he added.  

The relationship with Zelaya and the ACLU is key to the clinics’ success with local residents, Marling added. “Julio has direct access and is able to communicate with various immigrant communities in the area. He lets them know that there is going to be a pop-up legal clinic, that there will be volunteer lawyers that they can talk to confidentially.”

The ACLU is happy for the partnership with the university, Zelaya said.

“We don’t have the capacity to handle individual cases. We are set up to handle impact litigation cases that bring about bigger change at a federal, state and local level. Because of that limitation in our organization, we are pleased to team up with organizations like the U that have greater capacity for individual cases.”

A first step

The legal clinics work almost like a medical triage center. Individuals and families first meet with a law student, who interviews them about their status and about other legal concerns. The student then completes an assessment, which is passed to one of the volunteer lawyers who answers questions or determines legal options that participants may have for seeking immigration relief. Most meetings last about 30 minutes.

Julio Zelaya
Julio Zelaya
“Each individual will come and get a comprehensive immigration screening done by a student with attorneys to help supervise,” Mayell explained. “By the end of the session they will know whether they have any potential immigration relief options.”

Attendees come from a range of backgrounds, Mayell said: “Some of the people we meet have lawful permanent residence and want to learn about the next step toward citizenship. Other people we meet don’t have status but may have an option to apply for status through a family member. Other people don’t have status but may be able to get status from a different type of immigration claim like asylum. Still other people have no options for status.”

The clinic doesn’t provide solutions for every person who attends, Mayell said. Families usually leave with a list of things that need to be done to move toward legal immigration status.

“It is a first step. It is making contact with individuals in isolated communities. It is the far end of the pipeline before people end up in detention, in proceedings. It’s about getting information and knowledge to individuals about their rights and their situation.”

Benefits of outreach

For law students, working at a clinic is a way to gain firsthand experience with families and individuals struggling to make a life in the United States. It’s also a way to build deeper understanding of the limitations of the U.S. immigration system.

“A lot of the people I’ve talked to are asylum seekers,” Marling said. “They have suffered from gang violence and threats, maybe had a family member killed, maybe they’ve witnessed a crime and they or a family member have been threatened. They left their home country because of that. I’ve also talked to people who have status but just want to get naturalized. They are worried about things like, ‘What if my green card gets taken away?’”

Christopher Conway, a third-year law student from New Jersey, said the experience of traveling to Greater Minnesota for the clinics has helped him feel that he’s putting his training to good use.

“I’m from an immigrant family, from an immigrant community,” he explained. “There is a personal draw there to help people find relief. I wanted an experience that was more practical, that helped people, instead of just sitting in a classroom. It feels more useful to be out in the community speaking with real people.”

Leaving the Twin Cities and getting out into rural communities is a good way for law students to build an understanding of issues that many would never have considered before, Mayell said.

“Among many people there is an assumption about what rural America looks like. There is also an assumption about what rural poverty is.” At the rural access clinics, he said, students’ assumptions are abandoned, and they get a new take on reality.

“The education value of this program is we are taking students who are going to one of the best law schools in the country and exposing them to a community and a legal challenge that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to,” Mayell said. “Not only are they leaving the metro area and meeting with people who live in rural communities who are trying to overcome poverty, they are also dealing with one of the most significant legal challenges facing this country.”

Marling, a first-generation American with family who came to the U.S. from Cuba, said she jumped at the opportunity to sign up for the class.

“Since my first year of law school, since the Trump election, I started working with refugee rights and asylum cases,” she said. “It’s a big human rights issue. This class gives me the opportunity to go into a rural community and help people whose lives are directly impacted.”

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