Law School,  Legal Practice

Summer Series: The Beauty & Value of Hands On Work

Summer Series 2019 continues! Today we have Gissell Rodriguez a rising 3L at Western New England University School of Law. This Lawtina shares her summer experience with us as an intern for a legal aid in New York doing hands-on client counseling work all summer long. She discusses the difference in services provided when clients are able to culturally connect with their lawyers and the skills she’s gained in a fast-paced legal aid office. 

Representing Minors in Immigration

The federal government does not provide legal representation in immigration proceedings. This means that children who cross the border and are detained do not have lawyers. Statistically only 8% of children are granted relief in immigration proceedings without a lawyer. But, with legal help, a child has an 85% chance to win their case. As a daughter of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants, I am passionate about representing the immigrant community. This summer I am interning with Safe Passage Project (“SPP”) and am able to provide representation to the community I am proud to be a part of.

Hands on Direct Representation

SPP is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to minors. SPP originally began with screenings and placement of children’s cases with pro bono attorneys led by faculty at New York Law School (“NYLS”). As time progressed, NYLS then created a course to allow students to help screen children at the immigration court. The court needed a legal services organization to cover the docket and screen the children for eligibility for immigration status. A clinic at the school was formed and adjunct professors were soon recruited to assist in the supervision and placement of the cases after screening. SPP transformed from a pro bono law school project to a formal nonprofit corporation and has provided mentorship to over 4,000 attorneys. 

My time at SPP has been a hands-on experience. I have been immersed in the world of Asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile (“SIJ”) cases. I have sat in on client meetings and led parts of those client meetings. I have translated for clients and attorneys at the project. I have conducted research on country conditions, gender-based violence, partner abuse, child abuse, discrimination against indigenous communities, gangs and governments’ inability and lack of willingness to protect disenfranchised communities. I have drafted guardian petitions, client affidavits and memos. 

SPP serves a predominately Latinx demographic, many coming from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). Being half Salvadoran has allowed me to connect with clients in a different way because I have insight into the cultural context they come from. For example, I have been helping my supervising attorney (“SA”) prepare for an upcoming asylum interview for siblings from the Northern Triangle. There was a noticeable change in their disposition and willingness to share their story once they realized I was Central American and spoke Spanish fluently. I am honored that I get to be their literal voice at their upcoming interview, am drafting one of their affidavits and have conducted research that will be included in the memorandum of law for their case.

How I got my internship?

My first experience with immigration was when I was chosen to participate in my law school’s immigration clinic. I interned at Central West Justice Center in Downtown Springfield, a subsidiary of Community Legal Aid. As I started to think through what I wanted to do my 2L summer, I realized I was only getting a glimpse of what representation looked like through the clinic. I knew I wanted to continue learning about immigration. But, I also wanted to head back home to New York City for the summer and spend it with my family. 

I sent out my resume to various immigration organizations in New York and followed up with them. I was also intentional about paying attention to their values and what they portrayed their work culture to be. I went with SPP for two specific reasons: 1) They value community and teamwork. Community and teamwork are important things I need to help me thrive in a learning environment. 2) SPP cares about cultural competency. It is beautiful to see attorneys, paralegals and social workers that look like the clients they represent. 

Parting Thoughts

I am glad to be working with SPP this summer. Interning has been academically, emotionally and mentally challenging. Dealing with victims of trauma has been an intense experience. But, thankfully I have a great SA that has experience and has been mentoring me each step of the way. If you have any questions about my internship or law school please feel free to contact me at Gissell.Rodriguez@ wne.edu.

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