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Transnational Legal Clinic students ‘learn fast and work hard in a broken system’

August 16, 2020

Passing through the gate of the double-barbed-wire fence surrounding the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, Meroua Zouai L’20 thought about the Trump Administration’s anti-immigration policies and the people who bore the brunt of their cruelty — her clients. As a student in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic, she had been granted a glimpse inside the U.S.’s punitive immigration system, and she was deeply frustrated with what she saw.

Between a legal apparatus that seemed “designed to retraumatize” her clients, the “unconscionable” conditions in which they were “caged” while awaiting trial, and the sheer intensity of the “fear and despair on their faces,” Zouai sometimes felt paralyzed by the scale of the injustice facing people seeking asylum in the U.S.

Inspired by the commitment, patience, and expertise of the clinic instructors, however, Zouai learned “how to channel my frustrations” towards fighting for “the best possible legal outcome for our clients.” She ended up enrolling in the clinic three semesters in a row.

Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic Sarah Paoletti leads the clinic with Adjunct Professor of Law Ayodele Gansallo.

While the work of the clinic has always felt important, Paoletti said, “the Trump Administration’s assault on immigration has elevated the significance of the work we do. This is an area of law, policy, and practice where representation and critical legal analysis is more essential than ever to the recognition of the basic human rights and dignity of our client populations.”

Learning and honing trial skills, and more

Clinic students do this essential work while building critical skills of their own.

“The clinic is where I got every client and trial skill I’ve acquired on Penn Law’s campus,” said clinic alum Matthew Jerrehian L’21. “We were put in the position public interest lawyers are in — we had to learn fast and work hard in a broken system. It is a wildly different experience from a mock trial,” he said.

Paoletti hopes that her students take from the clinic “an understanding of the importance of case theory, the powerful role of narrative, and the ability to figure out how to figure it out,” whatever that “it” happens to be.

Clinic students represent clients from around the world attempting to obtain asylum and victims of human trafficking and other crimes hoping to secure visas in proceedings before immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In recent years, Paoletti has also taken students on week-long trips to work with clients in immigration detention centers in Tijuana, El Paso, and York, Pennsylvania.

Clinic alum Safaa Aly L’21 said that she “learned how to litigate in the face of impossible odds, how to file with a court, how to argue before a judge, and how to lean on clinic partners.” The clinic also taught Aly the importance of finding a balance, or a way to “turn off” the work.

“That skill I have not yet mastered,” she said, “but I’m grateful to be entering the profession knowing that this is something important to work towards.”

The importance of interviewing

For Carolyn Rice L’21, learning how to effectively interview a client was among the most valuable parts of her clinic experience.

“Before enrolling in the clinic, I didn’t fully appreciate how critical it was to develop this skill,” she said. “I thought that I naturally knew how to communicate well, and that surely my years of direct service were enough preparation. They weren’t.”

As a clinic student, Rice said, she was able to practice interviewing skills with hired actors in recorded simulations and then debrief the interactions with Paoletti.

“We reviewed every question that I had asked, every facial expression I made, and every opportunity I had taken (or missed) to develop a relationship with the client,” said Rice. “This feedback helped me become a more organized, precise, and empathetic interviewer. I believe that the clinic’s dedication to closely supervising and advising students to improve their client skills is unmatched by any other opportunity at the Law School.”

Rice noted that having finely-tuned interviewing skills was especially important when her cohort traveled to the Berks Family Detention Center, where students “would generally only have one meeting to learn the client’s story, develop a relationship, and prepare for their ‘credible fear’ interview,” during which an asylum-seeker must convince an asylum officer that she should not be deported because she has a reasonable fear of returning to her home country.

“Those interviews were conducted telephonically by an asylum officer who could not see the clients as they told their story,” she explained. “Translation services were also provided over the phone and, as a Spanish-speaker, I often had to intervene where our clients’ story was translated incorrectly or incompletely. In one case, we were not given the opportunity to interview our clients at all before their interview began, and I found myself translating, trying to understand the client’s story, and writing a closing argument all at once.”

Real-life impact

Students also feel the power of being present during administrative proceedings that may turn out to be life-changing — and in some cases life-saving — for their clients. Aly recalled one “long afternoon spent in a tense courtroom” culminating in her client being granted relief under the Convention Against Torture.

“Our client was fleeing torture inflicted on her by an incredibly violent man in a country where femicide is normalized, and what was most powerful about that day to me was not the result of the hearing, but the fact that throughout the process, our client was surrounded by a team of women who had shown up for her every single day, who had fought to protect her from the death sentence it would have been if she were forced to return to her home country,” said Aly. “Despite the pain she must have felt in having to retell her story, I think our client could take some solace in the fact that she had all of these women supporting her in the courtroom.”

A collaborative effort — especially important during COVID-19 crisis

Another highlight of the clinic for many students is the experience of working collaboratively with one another. “Every aspect of law school is a competition,” said Jerrehian, “from classes to jobs, to extracurriculars, and it was a relief to be on the same side as my classmates.”

Rice, who was Jerrehian’s clinic partner, agreed.

“Although most of the work we all do as law students is highly individual, actual lawyering requires a team effort,” she said. “Matt and I developed a great working relationship. We learned to draft interview plans for our clients together, to jointly develop a litigation strategy, and to write affidavits and briefs as a team.”

It was particularly reassuring to have a trusted partner to lean on when the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the most dehumanizing aspects of the immigration system were further aggravated by the need to maintain physical distance. Even under ordinary circumstances, clients pleading for their lives are often up against a judge with, as Zouai recalled, a “mechanical demeanor,” a “lack of compassion,” and an “utter disregard for basic human dignity.”

Just as the pandemic was erupting, Rice and Jerrehian were charged with representing a client they had never met in person.

“All of our interviews with the client were conducted over video conference, which often cut out or had poor audio quality,” Rice said. “These obstacles made developing a relationship with our client significantly more difficult. His asylum hearing was then conducted over the phone, which presented its own problems. Of all the challenges I had anticipated facing in my first hearing, struggling to identify the judge by his voice was not one of them!”

Students tend to leave the clinic with a taste for in-person advocacy and a commitment to advancing the rights of forcibly displaced people worldwide. Zouai, for example, said her clinic experience and Paoletti’s mentorship in particular informed her decision to begin her legal career working for the Center for Justice & Accountability, where she will represent torture survivors and hold human rights violators accountable before U.S. and international courts.

Jerrehian said that his clinic experience had confirmed his desire to do trial work.

“As angry as the courts make me,” he said, “I now know that I want to fight them head-on.”

Rice, who hopes to pursue a career improving the lives of immigrants through civil impact litigation, said “while I will likely forget many of the cases I read in law school, I will never forget my experience with the Transnational Legal Clinic.”

Read more about Penn Law’s clinical and externship opportunities.

This piece originally appeared on the Penn Law newsfeed.