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New Beginnings

A generous gift from the Robina Foundation enables the U of M Law School to create the Center for New Americans, the first of its kind in the nation.

By Amy Sitze

There’s a saying in some neighborhoods in El Salvador: “If you’re not in a gang, then you’re against gangs.”

Brothers Pablo and Rene Mira were just 14 years old when they discovered the truth behind that saying. After they refused several times to join the notorious MS-13 criminal gang, members threatened to kill them and their sister. Fearing for their lives, the three siblings fled to the United States and applied for asylum.

Photo of Frank Kelso
At a naturalization ceremony at the Minneapolis Convention Center in January 2013, approximately 1,300 immigrants from 99 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens.

Despite the fact that the Mira children would most likely be killed if they returned to El Salvador, the U.S. government ruled that they didn’t qualify as members of a group entitled to asylum. They are still in the Twin Cities, and their case is in legal limbo.

Hands-On Legal Experience

Benjamin Casper, who worked on the Miras’ case as director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM)’s Pro Bono Litigation Project, says these kids are exactly the type of people who will be helped by the U of M Law School’s Center for New Americans, a new venture made possible by a $4.5 million commitment from the Robina Foundation.

Casper, who has been named the center’s new director, isn’t wasting any time. This semester, students in a new federal litigation clinic made possible by the Robina gift are already working on the federal court appeal of another youth who, like the Miras, resisted Central American gang membership and was denied asylum in the United States. “This is a level of clinical work that’s new for students, and pretty exciting,” Casper says.

The Center for New Americans is the only one of its kind in the United States, says Law School Dean David Wippman. It stands apart in its partnerships with local nonprofits and law firms, plus three clinics where students gain hands-on experiences working on real cases with local lawyers: the federal litigation clinic, an existing asylum law clinic, and a new detainee rights clinic. It also includes an education and outreach program in which students and faculty help immigrants and refugees understand their legal rights.

The partnership model is especially powerful, Wippman says. The pro bono programs of three leading Twin Cities law firms (Faegre, Baker, Daniels; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; and Dorsey & Whitney) and three legal services nonprofits (ILCM, The Advocates for Human Rights, and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid) will work together to provide additional representation for Minnesota’s noncitizen population and to bring real-life learning experiences to students.

“A large law firm may want to take on additional pro bono cases but doesn’t have the deep expertise because it’s not their day-to-day practice area,” he says. “So they’d like some help from people who do it every day, which would be our faculty and the lawyers at the nonprofits. In turn, we can have our students work directly with them.”

Huge Impact

The need for this type of work is enormous. About 389,000 Minnesota residents are foreign born, including many refugees and asylees who fled their home countries because of war, persecution, and human rights abuses. Minnesota has a reputation for excellent pro bono and nonprofit services for immigrants and refugees, but with up to 300 noncitizens in detention on any given day, the community’s legal resources are stretched too thin to meet the need.

Casper says that in addition to providing much-needed legal representation for noncitizens currently in detention—or, like the Miras and others, still waiting to have their cases resolved—the Center for New Americans also hopes to help transform the system through litigation and non-adversarial policy engagement. It’s an especially timely issue as the debate about comprehensive immigration reform continues in the White House and U.S. Congress.

“We now have the resources to litigate important cases all the way to the U.S. district courts and federal courts of appeals—and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court,” says Casper. “We’ll be part of the national effort to improve the representation of detainees and gain better policies to reduce the need for detention. With the resources we have from the Robina Foundation, we’ll be able to make a huge impact.”

Amy Sitze is editor of Legacy magazine.

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