Clinic Answers Call to Help Immigrant Children

During their 3L year, Alissa Cooley (JD ’14) and Katelyn Franklin (JD ’14) both excelled during their participation in the Immigration Clinic, and both planned to pursue immigration law as a long-term career option. Upon graduation, bar study and job searches became the focus, and an immigration practice seemed further away.

At the same time, in the summer of 2014, unaccompanied children from Central America flooded Texas and New Mexico, seeking safe harbor from the gangs and violence that permeate everyday life in their home countries. Unfortunately, in immigration court children are not entitled to appointed counsel, and few, if any, can afford a private attorney. Of course, having a lawyer can mean the difference between staying here and being deported.

The justice AmeriCorps program and its grant funding were developed as a response to the child migration crisis. The program is a joint venture developed by the Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration courts, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps volunteer programs. Seven organizations received this new grant, and the William S. Boyd School of Law was the only law school chosen for funding.

Now, thanks to the justice AmeriCorps grant, Alissa and Katelyn’s clinic experience comes full circle as they devote every working day to understanding and representing unaccompanied immigrant children in court. Alissa and Katelyn joined the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic's Immigration Clinic last fall as grant-funded attorneys, and are helping unaccompanied minors – those who entered this country alone, without a parent or guardian – to navigate the complex world of immigration law. They represent these children in immigration proceedings at no cost to the kids or their families.

For Alissa and Katelyn, this is an opportunity to help children while gaining valuable lawyering skills. Though they were already familiar with removal defense from their work as students in the Immigration Clinic, Alissa and Katelyn have gained special expertise in representing children and the specific forms of relief available to them. In December 2014, the two attorneys attended an intensive training in Washington, D.C. on immigration practice and procedure. Because many children have migrated to escape abuse, persecution, or violence, Alissa and Katelyn received training on the ethical and practical aspects of working with children, trauma-informed care, and culturally sensitive care. A highlight of the training program was being sworn in by Attorney General Eric Holder in a private ceremony at the Department of Justice.

On the job, Alissa and Katelyn use a holistic approach in serving the children. They have quickly honed their interviewing skills to develop trust with the client, identify key issues and witnesses for investigation, and explain next steps to the client. In addition to legal representation, they provide referrals for free medical and dental care, including free eye care and glasses. Children who are identified as traumatized are referred to free or low-cost therapy. The additional services enable the children to acclimate to their new country in the healthiest manner possible and facilitate more effective representation.

Reflecting on their time in this position, Alissa says, “This job is so rewarding. I am getting great training and helping these children, who have heart-wrenching stories to share.” Katelyn remains motivated and inspired by her clients. “This position has really instilled within me a profound sense of respect and admiration for children. I’m continually inspired by their strength and endless hope.”