As a new year begins, time stands still on the U.S.-Mexico border for tens of thousands of migrants waiting for asylum hearings. It can take months or even years for their cases to be heard, if they are heard at all. But students at the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic are getting a unique opportunity to help some navigate the complexities of the U.S. legal system.
“These people risked everything to get here, and most of them can’t afford legal representation,” said Teresa Messer, Immigration Clinic director and professor of practice at the Law Center. “Our students not only provide the pro bono representation they need, but they get a top-notch educational experience as well.”
According to TRAC Immigration, a record 1.6 million asylum seekers are currently awaiting hearings. Half of those cases, about 800,000, are pending before immigration courts in the U.S. Department of Justice. The other half are waiting to meet with asylum officers in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“People in the immigrant communities tend to stick together, so it’s important we get to know them and build that trust so they’ll want us to represent them. Everyone deserves proper legal representation,” said Messer.
The clinic, founded in 1999 by former immigration judge and UHLC professor Joseph Vail, specializes in asylum applications for victims of persecution, domestic violence, human trafficking and crime, and those fleeing genocide, civil war or political repression. Over the years, clinic staff has litigated hundreds of cases, including some before the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 5th, 9th and 11th Circuits and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Messer, a UH alumna who joined the Law Center last year after a long and successful career as a private attorney focused exclusively on immigration law, hopes to cultivate the same desire to help immigrants in her students as her parents did in her.
“I am the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, so I found my passion for helping immigrants at a very early age,” said Messer, who earned her undergraduate degree at UH in English and philosophy. “I want to help our students find their passion and give them the chance to gain practical skills while taking ownership of real legal cases so that they can enter the workforce with competency and professional responsibility.”
In spring 2023, nine students working under the direction of Messer and two supervising faculty members will work on dozens of cases, from conducting initial client interviews to trial work. They will also assist local nonprofit organizations that support the immigrant community and give assistance to those held in immigrant detention centers.
The clinic’s classroom component provides students with an understanding of the basics of asylum law, citizenship, removal defense, and laws protecting immigrant victims of human trafficking and family violence. The focus on teaching advocacy skills and substantive immigration law equips students to represent immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (the immigration courts) and other federal agencies.
“Our students get to talk to the judges and opposing counsel and directly examine the clients,” Messer said. “We’re there to supervise and intervene when needed, but they’re doing the heavy lifting.”
Second-year Law Center students Grayson Carnahan, from Southlake, Texas, and Caesar Rivera Infante, from Houston, spent the fall semester working in the clinic.
“It’s exciting but humbling at the same time,” said Carnahan. “It’s a privilege to be able to take these cases, go into a courtroom and help clients in these vulnerable communities understand and successfully navigate our judicial system.”
“I am a DACA recipient, so I have a strong connection with these clients, many of whom have been through violence and other hardships,” said Rivera Infante. “It’s important to me to be able to help people from my background who really need these resources but don’t know they’re available.”
Carnahan and Rivera Infante will soon join a long list of Law Center graduates who specialize in immigration and went on to work for nonprofits or private firms in Houston, around Texas and elsewhere. And Messer says their success has only boosted the clinic’s reputation as a first-rate training ground.
“I’m grateful to be in this position to not only help these vulnerable populations that otherwise wouldn’t get help, but also to work with some amazing students,” Messer said. “They are helping forge strong partnerships that will benefit them and the clinic for years to come.”