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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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GU law school partners with Catholic Charities to launch free immigration law clinic

Daniah Bitar, an Arabic interpreter, stands among Arabic speaking workshop attendees and quietly translates while Justice Mary Yu speaks in the mock courtroom at the Gonzaga University Law School Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Immigrants and refugees from dozens of countries were invited to the law school to listen to speakers talk about the American justice system and how to avail themselves of legal services if they need it. After the opening speeches, the workshop attendees split into language groups to discuss problems like domestic violence and family law. The Catholic Charities Spokane and Gonzaga School of Law are teaming up to offer an immigration law clinic at the law school, where students overseen by attorneys will offer free representation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Daniah Bitar, an Arabic interpreter, stands among Arabic speaking workshop attendees and quietly translates while Justice Mary Yu speaks in the mock courtroom at the Gonzaga University Law School Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Immigrants and refugees from dozens of countries were invited to the law school to listen to speakers talk about the American justice system and how to avail themselves of legal services if they need it. After the opening speeches, the workshop attendees split into language groups to discuss problems like domestic violence and family law. The Catholic Charities Spokane and Gonzaga School of Law are teaming up to offer an immigration law clinic at the law school, where students overseen by attorneys will offer free representation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver nculver47@gmail.com

Catholic Charities Spokane and Gonzaga School of Law have teamed up to offer an immigration law clinic at the law school, where students overseen by attorneys will offer free representation.

“This is our first immigration clinic at the law school,” said law school Dean Jacob Rooksby.

The discussions about starting the joint clinic occurred for more than a year. Catholic Charities already offers services to immigrants but doesn’t handle asylum cases, which the clinic will.

“We were familiar with the work Catholic Charities did, and they described the extreme need,” Rooksby said. “We have lawyers in training that could help meet that need.”

Catholic Charities provides legal services to immigrants by using a sliding fee scale, but the Gonzaga clinic will offer free services to low-income clients.

“It’s hard to specialize in this area,” Gonzaga law professor Megan Ballard said. “A lot of the people who have serious needs are more in the low-income spectrum. That’s who we’re catering to. We’re a pro-bono clinic.”

Not many law firms in the area offer immigration services, and the need for it is higher than ever, Gonzaga staff attorney Megan Case said.

“I know the need has increased with this administration,” she said.

Immigrants used to be able to represent themselves to some extent, filling out the required forms and submitting them to the court. It used to be that if the immigrant made an error in the paperwork, they were given the chance to fix it, Case said. It’s not that way anymore.

“Now they just get a flat-out denial,” she said. “You need someone who is detail-oriented and knows what they’re doing.”

All Gonzaga Law School students are required to have hands-on learning as part of their studies, whether it’s working at the law school clinic or at an externship.

“We have an experiential learning requirement at the law school,” Rooksby said. “It’s different than teaching out of a book.”

Students can decide how much time they want to put into the clinic, Case said.

“They take certain amounts of credits and that corresponds to the amount of time they spend at the clinic,” she said.

The school’s clinic also has sections that deal with tax law, environmental law, Indian law, elder law and business law. A recent student survey showed there was an interest in adding immigration law, Rooksby said.

The immigration clinic started with four students and recently expanded to eight.

“We had to cap it,” Case said. “There were more applicants.”

The immigration clinic already has quite a few clients, including several families. Case worked at Catholic Charities until recently and brought several cases with her.

“When I was at Catholic Charities I would have students contacting me wanting to do internships,” she said.

People interested in having the clinic represent them go through an intake interview that will also determine if they meet the income requirements to receive free representation. Case oversees each student, meeting with them individually to discuss their work and checking each document before it is filed with the court.

“They’re working real cases but they’re under an attorney’s supervision,” Case said. “The clients can always feel confident that there’s a good student working on their case overseen by an experienced attorney.”

The number of cases each student has will vary depending on how much time they spend at the clinic and the type of case. Ballard said she hopes the program will help train the next generation of immigration attorneys while also helping those who need it.

“We need competent, social justice-minded lawyers,” Ballard said. “This meets both those needs.”

The clinic offers students invaluable real-world experience, Case said.

“That’s how they learn, by digging in and doing the cases and meeting with the clients,” she said. “The best way of learning is doing, in my opinion.”

Offering free legal services to immigrants seemed like a natural fit, Rooksby said.

“We view this as right in line with our mission as a Jesuit institution, helping marginalized communities,” he said. “We’re extraordinarily proud that we’ve been able to launch this.”

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