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R.I.’s only law school starts immigration law clinic

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ashley Ham Pong’s first client as an aspiring attorney is a Liberian national facing deportation for criminal convictions. The seriousness of the case, and the consequences it carries, were apparent the first time she interviewed the man behind a glass window at a Massachusetts detention facility.

“I think it really makes you do your homework,” said Ham Pong, 25, a third-year law student at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol.

Ham Pong is one of 10 participants in a new immigration law clinic at Roger Williams — Rhode Island’s only law school — where students under a professor’s supervision will represent detained immigrants facing deportation. The students have their own office hours, map out defense strategies for clients and, though not yet licensed attorneys, will have opportunities to make arguments at the federal immigration court in Boston.

“We run it like a small law firm where I’m the partner in charge,” said Mary Holper, a professor who runs the clinic. “They’re all associates working under me.”

Holper previously supervised a similar program at Boston College Law School.

Law schools routinely offer clinics to give students practical experience in representing clients and help ease the transition from the classroom to the courtroom. Roger Williams offers two other clinics in criminal defense and mediation.

The decision to add a third clinic in immigration law reflects a growing interest in what recently has been a tempestuous, hot-button issue in Rhode Island and elsewhere in southern New England. Nationally, too, immigration remains a contentious topic: President Barack Obama has called the country’s immigration system “broken,” and his administration is pursuing a strategy of targeting employers who hire illegal workers.

Federal agents in March 2007 raided a leather goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., arresting 361 workers — mostly women from Central America — on federal immigration charges.

Then, last year, Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants, requiring vendors that do business with the state to check new hires’ legal working status and demanding that state police and prison officials do more to identify illegal immigrants for deportation. Six courthouses were raided in July 2008 for having suspected illegal immigrant cleaning workers; the following month, a Chinese immigrant held at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls died of advanced liver cancer after being neglected by staff there.

“We saw what happened at the Wyatt detention center, you know what happened in New Bedford,” said Roger Williams law dean David Logan. “This is a very big issue of public policy, and there’s frankly very few lawyers in Rhode Island that specialize in this.”

Though criminal defendants are entitled to court-appointed lawyers, the same privilege does not extend to civil deportation proceedings. Holper said that creates an urgent need for lawyers who can help clients navigate the complex federal code of immigration law, helping non-English speakers make sense of documents that order their deportation or argue for bond for immigrants in detention.

Holper said she became interested in immigration law after studying abroad in Paris during college in the 1990s and living with North African immigrants strained by xenophobic sentiments in France. She later volunteered in Costa Rica and, as she prepared for a career in immigration law, worked as an intern researching country conditions for asylum applications and conducting asylum intake applications.

She was a supervising attorney at BC’s immigration law clinic for four years. She spent this past summer working with area nonprofits who deal with immigrants to help line up clients for her students.

Holper said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought more enforcement of 1996 changes to immigration law that essentially widened the list of crimes for which a person could be deported. That, in turn, has brought more focus on detained immigrants.

“The expansion of detention, it’s made a little bit more of a human rights, a due process, a civil rights issue than I would say it was pre-9/11,” Holper said.

Students are able to make court appearances if they’re not being paid by the client — which they’re not — and if they’re appearing under an attorney’s supervision. Holper said she will oversee all of her students’ written filings and communication with clients.

“It’s not the most efficient way to practice law, but the idea is to give them space to learn it themselves, to make their decisions,” she said.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Ham Pong and classmate Jessica Grimes were working out of the clinic, helping build a timeline for their client’s case and researching the conditions in Liberia to support his defense against deportation.

Grimes said the responsibility is daunting, but recalls being struck by Holper’s reassuring words.

“In the alternative,” she recalled Holper saying, “he’d have no attorney.”

(Associated Press)