This Land is Your Land...
The Right to Immigration Institute Fights for Refugees
Aligning with the values of social justice that lie at the core of the University’s mission, the Student Association for The Right to Immigration Institute is making itself known among the student-run clubs on campus for its commitment to the defense of immigrant rights. The club, in partnership with the non-profit TRII, seeks to provide undergraduate students with the accreditation necessary to represent refugees in Boston courts and practice immigration law before the Department of Homeland Security.
At the end of 2016, approximately 10,000 cases were pending in the immigration courts of Boston, according to Board Secretary Jonathan Goldman ’19. That same year, Board President Munis Safajou ’16, Board Vice President Victoria St. Jean ’19 and Goldman co-founded TRII, a nonprofit with 501(c)(3) status, alongside Prof. Douglas Smith (LGLS) to help satisfy the demand for more immigrant representation. They are working in collaboration with board member Lauren Gearty, an immigration attorney and a Brandeis University Ph.D. candidate studying legal history.
“Our organization makes it so that people don’t get kicked out of the country simply because they don’t understand a very complicated system, because they’re a child and they can have no way of knowing what they’re getting themselves into, or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Goldman said.
By applying for accreditation and recognition through the Office of Legal Access Programs within the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the club is harnessing the talents of local undergraduate students to represent those in need. However, these efforts are not without support from the Davis Grant, a $10,000 reward funded by Davis Projects for Peace. The grant is for “a grassroots project that could serve as building blocks for sustainable peace,” according to its online description. This reward provided The Student Association for TRII with the catalyst to get their organization running.
“When we finally got this [grant] last spring and we were able to take these next steps forward, it felt like we were able to work toward reaching our larger goals,” Goldman said.
The founding students first started working together after completing Smith’s course, “Immigration and Human Rights.” St. Jean, a former intern for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, and Safajou, a former intern with the United Nations, came together after completing the course in spring of 2016. Goldman, who was interested in public defense, took the course in the fall of 2016. The three decided to work together on their mutual interest in figuring out “how undergraduate students could theoretically get involved in immigration law,” St. Jean said.
TRII now has a presence on both Brandeis’ and Suffolk University’s campuses. Goldman and St. Jean founded SAT in 2016 as well. “We made the club so we could connect better with students,” St. Jean said.
Today, the club is thriving. Every Monday night, approximately 15 undergraduates gather as St. Jean and Goldman lead students through training, working toward receiving accreditation to serve as representatives for refugees in Boston courts. At its most recent meeting, SAT discussed the different types of immigrant visas, in addition to the various acronyms relevant to the immigrant process. The total training process will amount to 30 hours.
“We’re going to help them with their applications for accreditation so that hopefully when we get back to campus in January, they will actually be accredited and able to start taking cases,” St. Jean said.
Training is not all the student-run organization focuses on. Throughout its course, the club has prioritized bringing attention to the issues that surround immigration through various forms of community involvement. In spring 2017 it engaged the Brandeis community by hosting Brandeis Citizenship Day, an event focused on connecting Brandeis students and faculty to Boston-area immigration resources that featured a panel with speakers from human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Project Citizenship.
After receiving their accreditation, students will be able to work alongside Smith and Gearty during open hours at the Waltham Public Library, where the TRII attorneys and student volunteers will provide free immigration advice for local residents in need of assistance. This is achieved through a partnership with Waltham Public Schools.
“Having an immigration attorney, having a representative, is a huge step towards ensuring one is able to stay in this country,” Goldman said.
—Editor’s note: Kirby Kochanowski is a board member for TRII and contributed reporting for this article.