WASHINGTON — Ann Kim made monthly trips this year to an immigrant detention center in the Richmond, Va., area, trying to free a mentally ill Honduran man. He ended up being deported, but Kim got something out of it: more experience in the burgeoning field of immigration law.
“Immigration is becoming more and more complex, and it’s going against immigrants rather than for them,” said Kim, 27, a second-generation Korean who took the Honduran’s case as part of her immigration law clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. “There’s a great need for lawyers.”
A subject that three decades ago was a secondary, technical field delegated to adjunct professors is now booming at law schools nationwide. Elective immigration law courses taught by tenured specialists are filling lecture halls, immigration clinics are expanding and student groups devoted to the subject are mushrooming.
The momentum is partly driven by a high-profile, rancorous immigration debate. But it is also the result of an era of mass immigration that has fueled demand from foreigners and businesses seeking help navigating U.S. immigration statutes and has created a generation of law students intimately familiar with the issue, often because they are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
“Immigration is just one part of a much broader story about globalization, of movement of goods and movement of people and movement of ideas, and what used to be a backwater of the law has become mainstream,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, dean of Georgetown University Law School, who co-authored the first major immigration law casebook in 1985. “This is certainly a very, very hot topic.”
Unlike undergraduates, law students do not pick majors, so there are no statistics on the number studying immigration law. But professors say there is no question about the explosion in interest.
When AU created an immigration division within its well-known human rights clinic three years ago, administrators struggled to fill it; now, as many as 32 students vie each year for 16 slots. “We have to beat them away with a stick,” said Richard Wilson, a professor. Two years ago, the school added two more sections of a basic immigration law course.
At least 50 law schools offer immigration clinics, which usually give students the chance to represent indigent immigrants, who have no right to court-appointed lawyers. More sprout each year: This year, clinics have been launched at the University of La Verne and Southwestern Law School in Southern California, as well as at schools in areas that have seen recent influxes in immigration, such as Penn State and the University of Arkansas, where students circulated a petition in support of the idea.
Student teams can debate the finer points of the immigration code each year at the nation’s first moot court competition, begun by New York University two years ago. The University of California at Davis started a second contest this year.
In the past three years, students at the University of Maryland, George Mason University and Harvard have founded immigration law groups. At AU, an Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, formed by law students in 2005, has 50 members and has hosted a conference on a new visa category and panels of day laborers and refugees.
“We’re a country of immigrants, and yet we’re putting immigrants out,” said the group’s co-chairman, Amalia Greenberg, 29, who emigrated from Venezuela at age 6. “It’s a continuation of the civil rights movement, and it feels like it’s in our hands to do something about it.”
Professors say the immigration law boom is part of a broader explosion of interest in human rights and international law, spurred by today’s globally minded students. Immigration is by no means the hottest law school topic — criminal law and litigation remain hugely popular, and environmental law is a new favorite.
And although practitioners’ ranks are growing — membership in the American Immigration Lawyers Association has nearly doubled since 2003 to more than 11,000, 15 percent of whom passed the bar exam within the past three years — the majority of students in immigration law classes will not become immigration lawyers, professors said. Many students said they might specialize in another area and do pro bono immigration cases on the side.
But there is a growing realization, students and professors said, that policies on issues such as asylum and due process are evolving as never before, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A growing immigrant population also means that legal status often complicates what might have once been simple criminal or labor cases.
“It’s not just that people think immigration is important, but they’re seeing that it affects everything,” said Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at UCLA.
Many students said their studies had only underscored how thorny immigration is. Jennifer Khouri recently graduated from GW’s law school. As a student, she successfully argued at a suburban immigration court that an illegal immigrant from Colombia should be allowed to stay in the United States with her young son, a U.S. citizen. As proud as Khouri is of that victory, she is starting a job this fall as a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing the government in immigration court.
“On both sides, the reaction is too emotional. ... There’s not enough actually looking at the numbers, empirical evidence about how immigrants are affecting the country,” said Khouri, 27, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and Cuban immigrant mother. “The reason I want to work for the government is because I want to push for the middle.”
The topic’s ultra-political nature frustrates some. Asha Allam, who recently took GW’s immigration clinic, said the experience made her decide against the field because she thought the immigration system was unfair, in part because of documented disparities of approval and denial rates among immigration judges. Stalled federal immigration legislation also means lawyers can offer little aid to illegal immigrants, she said.
“Lawyers are telling a lot of their clients, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you right now,’ ” said Allam, 23, who plans to work in global trade in hopes that someday people will not have to migrate for opportunities. “That’s not really legal advice,” she said.
The challenges have only energized Karlie Dunsky, a GW law student. Unlike many of her peers, she had little experience with immigrants while growing up in Ohio. But she’s set on a career in refugee and asylum law.
“I’m going to have to get used to my clients’ claims being denied, but the first one is always hard,” Dunsky, 24, said. But “what makes immigration so compelling is that it’s a human issue. ... It’s not some vague entity that doesn’t have a face. It really motivates you.”