Immigrants in Rhode Island facing deportation and other legal issues now have a new source of free counsel at Roger Williams University Law School, which recently opened the Immigration Law Clinic to attend to the needs of non-citizens.
"The immigrant population in Rhode Island is large, and there just aren't enough legal services for them," said Mary Holper, assistant professor of law at Roger Williams and director of the clinic.
"The legal service providers that exist are doing a great job," Holper said, but they are unable to keep up with the caseload of the entire immigrant population.
Because immigration courts are not criminal courts, defendants who are unable to afford legal counsel do not have access to free, court-appointed representation. The clinic's clients are represented by law students under Holper's supervision. Without representation by the clinic, most of its clients — many of whom may lack English fluency — would be forced to represent themselves.
According to Holper, the clinic will ease some of the burden on existing providers created by many of the more complex cases, allowing those providers to more efficiently handle a large volume of simpler cases, such as green card applications.
The clinic not only benefits its clients, Holper said, but provides law students with real legal experience in what Holper called "a more complicated area of the law."
Chas Ryan — a third-year law student at Roger Williams — said he viewed the clinic as "an opportunity to get a lot of practical experience in an area of law that frustrates a lot of people." Ryan has been considering a career in immigration law and said his experience with the clinic thus far has made him more likely to enter the field.
"I love the courtroom — I think that's fun — and helping people. If you can do those two together, why not?" Ryan said.
Ryan is currently representing an Uruguayan immigrant who outstayed his visa and is being detained in Massachusetts at the Bristol County Jail and House of Corrections. The government alleges that he entered the country illegally and has a record of violent crime.
Ryan said he may help his client petition for "asylum relief" on the basis of abuse he was subjected to in Uruguay, or his client may sign the deportation papers rather than wait in jail for the outcome of his case. "Some clients do just want to go home," he said.
The clinic has impressed upon Ryan the real-life consequences of his schoolwork, he said. "If we make a mistake … a person could be deported," he said. "We can't make mistakes."