In 2016, 186,434 people had their cases decided by U.S. Immigration Courts, tribunals charged with determining whether to deport certain noncitizens from the U.S.
Nearly 40 percent of them, 73,524 immigrants, stood before the court — in what the justice system considers a civil, administrative proceeding and not a criminal one — without legal representation.
“You can be arrested and brought into court. And then you can be sent back to a country of which you know nothing through what is effectively banishment or exile,” says Charles “Shane” Ellison, legal director of Justice For Our Neighbors Nebraska, an Omaha-based chapter of a national nonprofit organization specializing in legal services for immigrants and refugees. “The law pretends that none of that is a punishment, but it happens every day.”
And, for many, this occurs without the benefit of adequate representation, which, Ellison says, for people in an immigration courtroom, can increase the probability of success.
A new clinic in the Creighton University School of Law, slated to open this fall, aims to help make an impact on those numbers, not only by directly aiding immigrants and refugees in open cases in immigration courts, but by training the next generation of lawyers to dedicate themselves to one of the most pressing social justice issues in the country today.
“There’s a crisis of migration right now,” says David Weber, professor of law, who has advocated for the immigration clinic and, upon meeting Ellison and observing the operation of Justice For Our Neighbors, made the final push to open the clinic at Creighton. “There are tens of millions of displaced persons who need to leave a difficult life. If we can do a little to help that, we want to do it.
“As Creighton University, we see the clinic as an extension of the Jesuit values to be men and women for and with others, reaching out to the most vulnerable among us. But it’s also an opportunity for students to exercise the technical skills they’ve acquired and be touched by the life experiences of the individuals they’re helping.”
Ellison, in addition to his duties at Justice For Our Neighbors, teaches at the School of Law and will oversee the clinic, which includes a one-hour per-week classroom component in immigration and refugee law.
The Creighton Immigrant and Refugee Clinic follows the longstanding tradition of Creighton’s civil clinic, the Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, in providing representation to the underserved, and where faculty, lawyers and students, recognizing the marginality of immigrants in the legal system, have engaged in legal work on behalf of these new arrivals.