Law 692:  Domestic Violence - Immigration Clinic

Course Description

The DVIC is a collaboration between the law school and the Immigration Project, a nonprofit legal service organization that assists individuals seeking immigration relief in Champaign and throughout downstate Illinois.  DVIC students will work with lawyers from the Immigration Project to develop, investigate, and complete applications for U-visas, VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) self petitions, and asylum for adult and youth victims of domestic violence and related traumas.

The focus of student work includes:  1) working with clients seeking legal status to develop their narratives of violence and trauma; 2) analyzing how the facts and evidence in the client’s case fit into the legal requirements to establish immigration relief; 3) communicating the client’s case in writing and otherwise completing the relevant application.

Legal work may also include drafting cover letters and motions, writing legal briefs, helping clients prepare for interviews with USCIS, conducting research on country conditions, advocacy with local law enforcement and other agencies, and assisting family members with derivative visa applications.  There may be occasional opportunities to accompany Immigration Project attorneys to immigration hearings or to represent clients who may need an order of protection.

In addition to legal work, students participate in a two hour seminar, where weekly coursework focuses on three components: 1) the psychological impact of violence and trauma on victims, especially as that impact relates to victims' choices and behavior when pursuing legal relief; 2) professionalism and lawyering; and 3) cross cultural issues in both lawyering and in domestic violence cases.

Sequence and Prerequisites:  None.

Evaluation: This is a graded course. Students will be required to devote a minimum of 135 hours during the semester to their cases and course work. In addition to fulfilling the minimum hour requirement, students will be evaluated on the quality and quantity of their legal work, their course assignments, and their class participation.

Course Classification: Clinic

Recent Work in the Clinic

Stephany*, part of a substantial community of Guatemalan refugees in Champaign County, is the mother of a child with a disability in middle school. She originally sought legal representation from the Immigration Project only for herself. More than five years ago, Stephany divorced her husband because of the severe physical violence he perpetrated on her. She still suffers from chronic injuries that require ongoing medical treatment. Then he kidnapped their 8 year child and moved to a neighboring state, threatening her with harm if she attempted to contact or visit their son. For three long years, Stephany learned about her son’s activities and health only through tidbits provided by extended relatives in Guatemala.

Because Stephany was a victim of domestic violence in the U.S., she potentially qualified for a U-Visa. The public interest protected in the availability of U-Visas lies in community enforcement and deterrence of violent crime within our own borders.  We don’t want victims to be afraid of reporting crimes committed against them because they think they will be arrested and/or deported.

Stephany’s case was assigned to Fall 2016 clinic students. They ran into difficulty with the first step of the U-visa process - obtaining a law enforcement certification that Stephany had cooperated with the prosecution of the crime committed against her. Even though Stephany had called the police for help, there was no police report, which is not unheard of in domestic violence cases. Without it, the local law enforcement could and/or would not sign the certification.

One of the challenges in working with immigrant populations as clinic students is communication.  Stephany’s first language is Kaqchikel, one of the 21 languages spoken by the indigenous Mayan people living in the rural areas of Guatemala. Fortunately, Spanish is both Stephany and one of our clinic student's second language, and our first collective decision was to obtain an order of protection for Stephany. It was both a means to an end - to allow her to pursue a U-Visa - but it was also to secure rights to her child. We hoped the judge would grant her visitation as a remedy in her order of protection and this might ultimately place her in a position where she could pursue custody at a later time. The students worked with Stephany to complete the written petition for the order and to prepare her to testify in court.

We were not sure we would be successful, and Stephany’s request was denied for an ex parte (called “emergency”) order of protection. The typical order of protection case involves a victim who has been recently physically assaulted, and therefore is perceived to need an order of protection immediately. Because Stephany had not had any contact at all in the past three years, we could not point to any “recent” physical assaults or threats to justify the granting of the order that day. The judge sent the case over for a hearing on a plenary order of protection in two weeks, after Stephany’s ex-husband was served.

At that hearing, a clinic student represented Stephany per his 711-license, and argued persuasively that Stephany’s history of abuse, though atypical, justified an order of protection that would prevent future violence against her. He pointed out that being completely prevented from having a relationship, even phone calls, with your own child is in fact abuse, and every day that went by was an incident of abuse. Because of the past threats against her, Stephany was afraid to contact her child or otherwise pursue her legal rights. 

Stephany was granted a plenary order of protection and visitation with her child. The judge also signed the certification for her U-Visa, the first time a judge had granted this relief in Champaign County.  

Currently, Stephany’s U-Visa case moves forward in the hands of Spring 2017 clinic students, and we anticipate her application will be completed and filed at the end of the spring semester.

*Stephany (name and other identifying details changed) gave her permission to educate the College of Law community about her case.

How We Do This Work (Trauma-Informed Lawyering)

As a psychologist and lawyer who has worked with domestic violence victims for more than 25 years, Professor Fischer is particularly interested in teaching students how to interview and more holistically represent individuals who have experienced physical, sexual, and emotional trauma from their partners. Victims of domestic violence are likely to suffer the after-effects of trauma, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, acute (including brain) injuries, and chronic health issues that can target their bodies.

Our goal is to establish empathic, restorative relationships with our clients that allow them to reveal the traumas they have experienced that will form the basis of the legal relief they are seeking. Because we have learned about trauma, we can  educate our clients about its effects, so clients may better understand their own behaviors and decision-making.

Trauma-informed lawyering is not a buzzword, a technique, or a formula for legal representation. It is a strategy for helping clients talk about their past traumatic experiences in ways that allow them to feel safe as well as empowered that the articulation of their stories will help achieve their legal goals.

Read more about trauma-informed lawyering.

Our Community Partner: The Immigration Project

Rebekah Niblock is the Immigration Project Staff Attorney who collaborates closely with clinic students, teaching the substantive areas of immigration law that relate to our clients’ cases and supervising students’ representation of clients. Rebekah, a 2013 graduate of George Washington University and a former student of their Immigration Clinic, brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to her work in immigration law.

The Immigration Project is a nonprofit organization providing legal assistance to the 100,000 immigrants residing in Central and Southern Illinois. 

Student Perspectives on the Value of Clinical Education

"In my Clinic semester, my partner and I handled several immigration cases that dealt with taking a case from beginning (meeting with the client for an initial consultation) to end (submitting the client’s application with USCIS). I found this work not only extremely rewarding, but also very educational. " John Torre '17

"I learned to interview reluctant/traumatized persons, to problem-solve in complicated situations, and to build trust with clients. I even was able to practice my Spanish. For the first time in law school I felt like a lawyer with something tangible to offer." Loren Jones '18

"Clinic was the first place that I experienced the law as a collaborative effort. I was part of a team of attorneys working towards helping clients achieve some measure of independence from their abusers."  Brandon S. Jones '09, Captain, United States Army Judge Advocate General Corp

"I’ve learned a lot about what constitutes domestic violence, why partners engage in domestic violence, physical & psychological effects of domestic violence on victims, and how attorneys and other professionals can intervene." Kasey Altantulkhuur '18

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