By Steve Bornfeld
Charity needn’t begin at home. Yet when it is directed toward those closest to us, it’s gratifying that charity can untangle the complexities of legalities—for those who need it most.
“Just last month, we had a relative of a CSN [College of Southern Nevada] employee who had been detained by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] since March,” says Michael Shamoon, himself an immigrant from Iraq who runs the UNLV Immigration Clinic’s University Legal Services project at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, from which he graduated in 2019.
“With COVID-19 spreading, there was an increased risk of him getting sick,” Shamoon says. “We had the hearing in August, and he won the right to stay in the United States and was finally released after six long months. It was so moving to see. His mother cried when she found out he was coming home.”
Home—defined here as the campuses of the extended higher-education family of UNLV and CSN—is where the heart of legal representation is. That’s thanks to the University Legal Services project, which is devoted entirely to offering free legal assistance at both institutions to immigrant students, staff, and their family members.
“It gives me great satisfaction knowing that individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have an attorney can now get the representation they need because the system is so difficult to understand,” says Shamoon, who handles all University Legal Services cases himself, with occasional research help from students who work at the Immigration Clinic.
“Immigration law is very complex and constantly changing,” he says. “The government maintains that any individual can navigate the process without an attorney—that an attorney isn’t necessary to file an application to obtain an immigration benefit—but that simply isn’t true. The forms, documentation, and evidence required for these applications are sometimes so overwhelming for the average person with no legal background that they are bound to make some kind of mistake. And that mistake can result in something very final, like being deported.”
Boyd Law School alumna Mayra Salinas-Menjivar, a former Immigration Clinic fellow (and El Salvadoran immigrant), created the University Legal Services project as a pilot program in July 2018. After Salinas-Menjivar moved on to private practice, Shamoon—also an Immigration Clinic fellow—took over the program in November 2019. Under Shamoon, its umbrella was expanded to cover CSN.
“With about one in five Nevada residents being foreign-born, the need for legal services from our growing immigrant population has increased exponentially,” Governor Steve Sisolak said in a statement. “I am pleased to see Nevada’s renowned law school, the William S. Boyd School of Law … is addressing these needs by delivering free legal assistance to students, staff, and families [of UNLV and CSN] to ensure immigrants can take full advantage of the services and protections afforded to them. When immigrants succeed, Nevada succeeds.”
Grants from both UNLV and CSN fund the project, which offers an array of legal services, including: helping undocumented individuals obtain legal status; assisting U.S. citizens trying to sponsor a relative to come to America; helping legal residents apply for U.S. citizenship; defending families threatened with separation through deportation; and facilitating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) paperwork.
“The Immigration Clinic serves the community at-large. Because of limited resources, its service is basically limited to deportation defense. But the University Legal Services program functions much more like a normal immigration law firm,” says Shamoon, who estimates that 10 percent of UNLV’s student population is undocumented. “Anything regarding immigration that someone comes into the clinic with—if they qualify for my program, we take their case.”
Since he began leading the program, Shamoon has assisted more than 150 clients. Most common, he says, are cases in which undocumented immigrants or those here on visa are attempting to obtain a green card (i.e., an “adjustment of status”) to remain here legally. “I see the joy on a mother’s face when she finds out she can finally get a green card after having waited 20 years, after living in the shadows, always looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t caught by law enforcement,” he says. “These immigrants come to this country for opportunities, to give their children better lives.”
With immigration issues ratcheting up during the Trump administration, the need for legal services pertaining to DACA renewals for students colloquially known as “Dreamers” has increased substantially. This became particularly important after the federal government not only terminated new DACA applications but required renewals for existing Dreamers to be submitted every year, rather than every two years, thus doubling the application fee.
“That was one of the things that really got the support of the UNLV community and [stimulated] funding for this program, because Dreamers are part of the fabric of our community,” Shamoon says. “The government’s new [DACA] policy opened a lot of people’s eyes to the impact this administration was having on immigration. People could not stand for that because these are our neighbors, our friends, the people with whom we share our community. They are us. They are Americans.”
Another vital issue Shamoon addresses through the University Legal Services program: petitioning on behalf of clients who are trying to bring their deported parents back to America. Recently, he took on the case of a 21-year-old student whose parents were forced to return to Mexico when she was only 6, leaving her to grow up without them. “What kind of society allows children to be without parents—orphaned by the immigration system?” Shamoon says. “It’s something that needs to change.”
And he’s more than happy to help inspire that change through the University Legal Services project.
“I’m thorough in my work, so I know my client will get the kind of representation that is as good or better than if they hired an attorney who charged them a fee they couldn’t afford—we’re talking more than $10,000 in some cases. That’s why this is such an important and valuable resource for all students, staff, and their families.”
For more information on the University Legal Services project, call 702-895-2080 or click here to complete a simple evaluation form to make an appointment. Services are available to those who qualify and as resources allow.