Undergraduate students, especially those without connections to professional lawyers, rarely have the opportunity to gain practical legal experience. Immigrants, even those as young as three and four years old, must represent themselves in immigration court proceedings, regardless of their educational backgrounds. The Right To Immigration Institute (TRII) stands at the intersection of these two problems, training undergraduates to become accredited representatives in immigration court and work in paralegal support roles alongside lawyers. The student members of TRII gain invaluable legal experience and immigrants who might not have access to legal help don’t have to go through the process alone.
TRII began in 2016 when Munis Safajou ’16 and Victoria Saint-Jean ’19 took Professor Doug Smith’s (LGLS) Immigration and Human Rights class and learned that immigrants often must act as their own representatives in what can be a long and confusing legal process. Safajou and Saint-Jean emailed Smith to express their concerns and see how they could help. The three began brainstorming, initially hoping to create a semester-long project for students in Smith’s course. As they talked more, they realized they had an opportunity to match student talents with a pressing need in the community. They decided to found TRII, and the organization has been growing ever since.
Jonathan Goldman ’19 joined the project in Fall 2016 after learning about it through Saint-Jean, a good friend of his. This year, after several semesters of work and a long application process, he and Saint-Jean were given their Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited status; this officially qualified them to represent immigrants in court.
Goldman is a dual citizen, with a Danish mother and an American father, but he hasn’t experienced the difficulties faced by many immigrants, he told The Brandeis Hoot. “I’ve been a dual-citizen my whole life and traveling back and forth between these two countries has been seamless,” Goldman said. “My skin color and how I talk make me fit into the stereotypical mold of what it means to be American. This stereotype—the stereotype of an American being someone who is white, speaks perfect English and does things the American way—is not a true reflection of what it means to be a part of our community.” Goldman realized most immigrants don’t share his experience and that the American immigration system is not designed to allow equal or easy access to citizenship. Through TRII’s free citizenship clinics and legal aid, they hope to have immigrants “navigate a system which has been unfairly created to help some people win and others lose,” he said.
TRII trains its student members to qualify for accreditation, but most of the work happens before individuals even get to court. Applying for citizenship and other kinds of official immigrant documentation involves long hours of interviews with immigration officials, an experience that can be frightening for those who go through it. TRII works with their clients to prepare for the interviews, helping them gather important documents or fill out forms. Immigrants who have experienced trauma, Goldman says, may have a hard time remembering the types of details immigration officials will ask about or just need support in telling their stories. TRII’s volunteers are on hand to make sure their clients don’t enter an interview feeling unprepared or alone.
For Aseem Kumar ’20, TRII’s treasurer, immigration is personal. An international student originally from New Delhi, Kumar was drawn to the opportunities studying in the United States would afford him, but he understood that not all immigrants would be able to attain an official immigration status and pursue those same opportunities. He became involved with TRII his first year at Brandeis and completed their semester-long training course.
Kumar eventually decided not to seek DOJ accreditation, he told The Hoot, feeling he did not have the time to devote to work as a representative. Instead, he became the club’s treasurer. Kumar, who studies business and economics, thought he could make the most impact on the business side of the club by helping them apply for grants and ensuring they used their money sustainably. His parents, Kumar explained, taught him from a young age to be responsible with money and to use the financial resources available to bring about positive change in other people’s lives.
In 2016, TRII became a chartered club, giving them access to resources including the right to reserve spaces on campus, funding from the allocations board and tables at semesterly club fairs. Being a chartered club, Goldman said, connects them to the student body more than other non-profits. They gained their 501(c)(3) status in October 2017, a federal designation that exempts non-profits from paying taxes. In November, they won the Davis “Projects for Peace” award, a $10,000 grant for undergraduate proposals seeking to resolve conflict and maintain peace. Though TRII receives funding through the Davis grant and the Student Union, most of their work is done on a volunteer basis, with students and professional staff working pro-bono up to 30 hours each week.
As the first non-profit in the United States to train undergraduates to become immigration representatives, TRII embodies Brandeis’ founding mission, its members working to break down artificial and discriminatory barriers that keep people from the rights and opportunities they deserve.