Law School Program to Provide Legal Aid on Immigration and Citizenship

Lexington, VA Friday, August 13, 2010

Aaron Haas, Oliver Hill Fellow

Commentary: A.G. Places Police in Jeopardy
In the Roanoke Times, Aaron Haas argues that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's advisory opinion regarding the authority of local law enforcement officers to inquire about immigration status will do more harm than good.
The federal government has stepped up immigration enforcement dramatically, doubling the number of deportations in the past ten years alone. Bigger budgets, stronger political pressure, greater use of technology, and increased cooperation with local law enforcement have enabled the government to expand these efforts especially in areas like southwest Virginia that recently have seen large increases in immigrant populations. Demonstrating this is not just an issue for border states like Arizona, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli recently released a controversial advisory opinion that says police in the Commonwealth can investigate the immigration status of people they detain or arrest.

Against this back drop, there is a fast-growing need for legal services for people facing immigration problems, especially in areas not accustomed to large immigrant communities like the Shenandoah Valley. However, due to restrictions put on legal aid offices in exchange for receiving federal funding, such providers do not assist with immigration cases. Now, Washington and Lee law students will get a chance to help fill this void through a new program launching this fall at the School of Law.

The Citizenship and Immigration program will focus on resolving legal disputes related to immigration and naturalization. Students working in the program, which is part of the School's general externship program and third-year curriculum, will represent individuals before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice in order to obtain immigration benefits such as permanent residence, citizenship, asylum, and relief from deportation.

Aaron Haas, the new Oliver Hill fellow at the School of Law, will oversee the program. He believes the launch of the program is very timely.

"Immigrant communities are spreading from the traditional areas like Texas and California into new locations in search of economic opportunity, and in many ways the legal profession hasn't quite caught up with the needs associated with those groups," says Haas.

Haas notes that changes in immigration laws during the 1990's and following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have led to increased enforcement and deportation. In some cases, these immigrants have been in the U.S. legally for decades, but they are being deported now for a crime they may have committed years ago, and for which they have already served time in prison.

Haas notes, "Many of the individuals placed in deportation proceedings are victims of domestic violence, unaccompanied minors, refugees, or long-standing legal residents with deep family and community ties in the U.S. who have minor convictions from a long time ago. These types of clients typically have a legal defense that can prevent deportation, but the immigrants often don't know about it or can't get the legal aid they need to help defend themselves."

The Citizenship and Immigration program is an evolution of the School's Community Law Center, which operated out of the Oliver Hill House in Roanoke last year. During the year, the Center took on several immigration cases in addition to its elder law practice and saw the growth potential in this area. The School decided to relocate the program back to Lexington and to expand the service beyond the Roanoke area to include southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah valley, and as far east as Richmond.

Haas, a Peace Corp volunteer and Harvard Law graduate, worked on the frontlines of this issue during four years as a staff attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid before coming to W&L Law. For his part, he hopes that students will gain valuable experience while learning about a growing area of law and filling a void in the community.

"This is an important area of the law for students to study, as it intersects with family law, criminal law, employment law, and other areas in which the students may eventually practice," says Haas. "At the same time, they will provide invaluable assistance to people who otherwise would not have access to legal help and can learn the power of the law to affect real people in positive ways."    

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