As a law student working in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Immigration Clinic, Nichole Sklare is aware of the significant weight of her work.
First, there are the lows: watching the fear and uncertainty of her clients as cases crawl along for months, sometimes years, without answers.
Then, the highs: like the day she argued in court on behalf of an 8 year-old child, earning him immigration status. Or the phone call she received from an elated 18-year-old, who gained permanent resident status after she found a small detail that could help him stay in the country.
Those wins, she says, motivate her and her classmates to continue fighting for undocumented immigrants every day.
“It’s the ultimate opportunity to gain client counseling skills, because in this type of work, people facing the possibility of being deported or losing family members is something that is so severe and the most at stake for them,” said Sklare, an Omaha native.
The College of Law’s Immigration Clinic has been providing free legal services to those in need since 1998. In the last year, it has more than tripled the number of students working on immigration cases, meeting a growing need for deportation and asylum services across Nebraska.
“It’s a pretty tumultuous time for immigration and immigration policy, and that leaves a lot of clients with a lot of questions and fears,” said Sam Hawley, a third-year law student from Eldridge, Iowa. “To be able to be that person that can go and help address those fears and problems is a really valuable experience, and what drew me specifically to the Immigration Clinic.”
Undocumented residents do not have a constitutional right to a lawyer. Without representation, they can receive poor outcomes and not fully understand their options when it comes to the legal system.
By taking on about 40 cases on a pro-bono basis, Nebraska law students are helping fill that representation gap. The students must be at a senior-level standing to work with the clients and are accepted via an application process.
“This is a valuable chance for students to actually work with clients and real cases,” Ruser said. “I think they get enjoyment out of finally applying the theory they’ve learned up until this point in their law school career.”
Ruser compares the students’ work to having a “learner’s permit” for practicing law.
“(Kevin) really gives us the freedom that we need to be able to really learn and be comfortable doing this by ourselves,” Sklare said. “He’s not a micromanager at all, but he still is there to make sure that we are doing what is best for the client. When we meet with the clients on our own, we just tell him what we’re going to advise them. So it really is like practicing ourselves.”
The Immigration Clinic sees clients from all over the state. But according to Ruser, who started the clinic 21 years ago, Lincoln’s designation as a refugee resettlement center has created a unique demand for immigration services within the city. Over the years, refugees from Vietnam, Tajikistan, Bosnia and Iraq have been frequent visitors to the college.
“Lincoln is way more diverse than you think it would be, so the demand for services is huge here,” Ruser said. “We keep a map and we stick pins in every country that a client has come from that we’ve worked with, and it’s covered with pins. It just astounds me.”
Ruser and his students receive so many calls that they recently created Quick Counsel, a service that lets members of the community come to the clinic for an hour of free legal advice.
“Although sometimes we can’t take everyone on for an extended case and represent them, we can at least meet with them to get some preliminary information, give them advice and provide them with more resources and information than they had before,” Ruser said.
While this year’s clinic students are moving into a variety of fields after graduation, they can agree on one thing — pro-bono work will continue to be a large part of their career. It will also remain a key priority for the College of Law.
“It’s a good way to help people, which I think is a lot of what law should be about,” said Sydney Hayes, a third-year student from Lincoln.