I think many years from now, when our kids are our age, those of us who were in school at this particular historical moment will remember it as a dark period in American history, a shadow in which we all lived otherwise normal lives. As children were snatched from their parents at the border and refugees detained at airports, we, unable to do much about it, went about our business, keeping ourselves busy and trying to avoid that pit in our stomach that came whenever we checked the news, that ubiquitous question every story came to answer: What did he do today?
I write this not to berate you for not doing enough but rather to inform you that there is actually something quite fulfilling you can do, a counterpoint to the political climate of the last several years that showcases the best of what America can be.
In 2016, three Brandeis students and their professor started The Right to Immigration Institute (TRII), a pro-bono immigration clinic in Waltham, MA that primarily helps asylum seekers find refuge in the United States. This is vitally important work, and TRII is pioneering a new model that will hopefully be implemented on other college campuses in the years to come.
Because immigration courts are not federal courts but rather administrative bodies of the Department of Justice, non-citizens who are called to appear before an immigration judge aren’t guaranteed the right to counsel. And without representation, 90 percent of asylum seekers lose their case—a loss which could literally cost them their life. With representation, the success rate is about 50/50. For the same reason that representatives aren’t guaranteed, a person can be accredited as a representative without being licensed to practice law.
TRII trains Brandeis students, over the course of a semester, to be eligible for this accreditation. After the training course, students form groups of two or three and take on clients from the Waltham community. The learning curve is steep, but the results are deeply rewarding. To sit with another know-nothing college student across a table from someone at the tail end of a dangerous exodus—often necessitated by their bravery in the face of oppressive regimes or gang lords—with the knowledge that somehow you’re the one with the ability to lighten their load, is to be face-to-face with the basic injustice of the world and to confront it and make progress.
If this country hadn’t opened its doors to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of Europe, I wouldn’t exist. If this country hadn’t accepted my father as an immigrant from Mexico, I wouldn’t exist. To do my small part in pushing the doors to this country open just a little as the powers that be try to squeeze them shut is not just a good thing to do; it’s an opportunity to pay back an existential debt I owe as an American and as a human being. It also, incidentally, looks great on a resume.
The TRII office is doing great work, but it’s quickly reaching capacity as those who were trained last semester take on clients of their own. Next semester, there will be another training, and, in the meantime, we could use help fundraising, advocating or even just driving people to where they need to go. I would encourage everyone to get involved—you can start by following TRII on social media to be notified if an opportunity arises to lend a hand.
And a generation from now, when the TRII model has expanded and undergraduates across America are doing what we do here in Waltham, you can say of this historical moment, “I was one of those people who helped close the representation gap in immigration courts so that the people who needed help could get the help they needed.” Could there be a better use of your time than that?