Ukrainian refugees had few safe options as they fled their country after Russia’s 2022 invasion. One such family ended up in Utah.
In April of last year, a mother and her two children entered the United States from Mexico and started the arduous process of applying for asylum. The family’s father joined them in October. All of them needed legal help.
The University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law’s new refugee law clinic provided critical, just-in-time legal advice and support.
“There are very few pro bono, nonprofit resources for asylum seekers,” said Virgina Maynes, an immigration attorney with Catholic Community Services. “When you’re forced to flee your country based on persecution, you don’t have a lot of resources or a lot of time to prepare for that move. You arrive in the United States without the ability to easily contract with your own attorney but with a huge need for legal assistance.”
Some of that assistance came from law students working on asylum cases for Utah residents.
Clinics allow law students to work on real cases under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Kristina Campbell, a visiting professor of law at the University of Utah, began an immigration and human rights law clinic in 2010 at the University of the District of Columbia, where she teaches full-time. In August of last year, she started setting up a refugee clinic at the U and students began taking the course during the spring 2023 semester.
“Utah has a lot of refugees and there are very few legal resources for them,” Campbell said. “Starting this clinic creates an exciting opportunity, not only for our students but for the community members who need help.”
With the assistance of Maynes and Catholic Community Services, Campbell was able to identify a range of asylum cases for the five students taking her clinic this semester to work on.
The Ukrainian family’s case was complex. The mother and children arrived before the implementation of policies designed to help Ukrainian refugees more easily claim asylum. They were placed in removal proceedings and scheduled to appear in immigration court in January 2023.
During their journey to safety, the family’s husband and father was separated from them. In October 2022, he arrived in the U.S., reunited with his wife and kids, and received parole through a program that had not been available for the rest of the family.
In order to have the best chance for the entire family to stay together in the United States, they would need legal help. The students in Campbell’s class assigned to the case successfully argued that with the father already having parole status, the case to remove the mother and children should be dropped. They then filed their asylum application.
In addition to the Ukrainian family, Campbell’s students also took cases for a group of three unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan and a young woman from Colombia.
“I felt like it was important for them to see how the same type of case can be so different depending on factors like age, nationality, and then the specific claims an individual is making,” Campbell said.
Campbell spends the first half of her clinic teaching her students some of the skills they need for their cases—cultural humility, being client-centered, how to work with people who have trauma histories, etc.
“These are practical things I think are super important to learn when you are working with vulnerable populations, because your clients are people, not problems,” she said.
They then spend the rest of the semester working on their cases. If cases are not finished during the semester, they are either continued into the next semester or returned to the organization previously representing the client.
According to Campbell, the individual nature of asylum cases means this area of the law allows for a lot of creativity. Because students lack prior experience, they bring valuable new perspectives to making the best argument possible for a client.
“I am not afraid to make arguments that I think have merit, but don’t have a lot of precedents to back them up,” Campbell said.
Nanette Pawelek is finishing her last year of law school and is one of the students in the clinic. Last May, she traveled with two other law students to Poland and Ukraine to help process asylum claims for Ukrainian refugees. In this spring’s refugee clinic, she and her classmate Erich Linder chose to work on the Ukrainian family’s case.
“One of my favorite things to do is work with real clients,” Pawelek said. “That’s why I love the clinic experience. Instead of reading a case in a book in class, I actually get to practice what I’m learning under the supervision of an expert in the field.”
According to Maynes, the individual connection students like Pawelek make with refugees is why clinics are so important.
“The most important outcomes of this clinic are building capacity for these types of cases as well as providing quality representation for these individuals,” Maynes said. “I also think it’s an important education piece in general, even if students decide to go into a different area of law or even not to practice law. Just getting experience working with this population on a human level is helpful. With immigration being such a hot-button issue in our world, the more experience you have, the more understanding you have going forward.”