Providing Immigrants Legal Assistance During Covid—Reflections and Lessons Learned

May 21, 2021

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and students in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic are getting ready to meet with a client in a Law School conference room from an ongoing asylum case. They have conducted hours of research in preparation for the meeting, and are eager to share updates about the case.

When the client finally arrives by bus or car and walks downstairs to the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, students welcome them in, offering coffee and refreshments. Although the agenda has several different discussion points, being in physical space together allows for an open meandering of conversation that often leads to additional pieces of evidence, potential issues and arguments to strengthen the case. 

This is what a typical day looked like for students and clients in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic in pre-Covid-19 times.

When Covid-19 rapidly spread across the country and world, students in the clinic, along with many other legal representatives, quickly had the structure and process they relied on for so long ripped out from under their feet.

More than a year later, students reflect on how the pandemic has exacerbated issues facing client-attorney relationships, while also shedding light on how creative adjustments to the current situation can inform improvements in the future.

The Immigration and Human Rights Clinic represents asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking. The cases that are handled by the clinic often have to do with experiences of extreme trauma and hardship of clients fleeing persecution in their home countries, frequently involving accounts of abuse and constant physical danger. These topics can be emotionally grueling and difficult to discuss, and one way students have historically made sure clients feel comfortable is by meeting face-to-face at the Law School. Keeping in mind the emotionally nature of the cases, and the costs of transportation and childcare for in-person meetings, check-ins were generally reserved for major case-updates; every month or so. 

Being in person allows for unplanned check-ins about plans for the day, updates on home-life and local news stories that give way to an environment of trust. Kathryn Campbell ’21, says, “creating personal connections and trust with clients is so important and it’s entirely different to support clients over the phone when they are talking about emotionally difficult experiences or crying.”

With communication virtual communication, “meetings are much more perfunctory and there is less space to chat about life as a means to build rapport,” says Ryan Rainey ’21. 

Adapting to the ‘New Normal’

In the face of obstacles innate to virtual communication, students in the clinic had to strategically develop techniques to build rapport and connect with clients in order to provide the best possible legal representation. 

In collaboration with students, professor Stephen Meili, the clinic director, decided it was important to have more frequent and intentional touchpoints via Zoom or phone in order to enhance connection between the students and clients. 

Yemaya Hanna, 2L
Yemaya Hanna, 2L
Students also noticed some opportunities in the virtual meetings. For example, “clients who live out of state or three hours away are now able to connect easily” to check in with their lawyer team, point out 2L Yemaya Hanna. With transportation no longer an issue, clients are able to take calls from their own homes.

 

Although communication is easier for some from home, others find themselves in difficult situations —unable to talk about traumatic events because their children are listening in the background. As a lesson moving forward, students plan to work both virtually and in-person with clients to allow for more flexibility in schedule and provide different avenues of communication.

“Maintaining consistent client communication through Zoom and phone calls has allowed us to build a trusted relationship,” notes Meili. “Now we’ve learned that more frequent touchpoints bring us closer to our clients, so in the future I picture us continuing a schedule that combines phone calls, video conferences and in-person meetings.”

Other Challenges

The pandemic presents many immigrant clients with many life challenges outside of the scope of legal representation. “Covid-19 has affected services we don’t have control over. Although we’re providing legal representation, we’re also giving a lot more information and referrals on a variety of issues clients face in their daily lives like housing, healthcare, and other things,” says Rainey.

Movement lawyering, the practice of providing a wrap-around support system for clients through a network of organizations, contacts and connections, is a critical component of getting a client on the pathway to success.

Eura Chang, 2L
Eura Chang, 2L
Often more is going on behind the scenes than can be revealed through a simple conversation. “Certain topics that are common in other cultures have come up more frequently. We’re asking how everyone’s families are doing, making sure people are healthy, and acknowledging that it has been a really tough time,” says Eura Chang, 2L. 

 

The focus on family wellbeing is a positive practice that students feel creates a stronger relationship with their clients, and a change they hope to continue in the future. 

“Sometimes clients see their lawyers as part of an anti-immigrant legal system and apologists for it,” Meili explains. “By communicating regularly with clients in their home environment we dispel this perception and demonstrate that we are committed to our clients’ well-being, both through the law and beyond.” 

Through connecting virtually, clients and students have seen an up-close look at one another’s homes, children and pets. “In a sense, being able to see each other at home and seeing a cat run by reminds the other side—oh yea, we’re all human, and we work and then we go home. … It’s humanizing in a way,” says Alena Carl, 2L. 

Lessons Learned

The pandemic has been a painful time, but has also led to some silver linings including shifting priorities and embracing change. For the students in the clinic, working with clients virtually has shed light on shortcomings of in-person lawyering; such as transportation strains, lack of child care and far-and-in-between check-ins, along with room for improvement including more frequent check-ins, flexibility in virtual and in-person meetings, and getting to know clients and their families through a different lens. 

 “I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned is that we can’t make assumptions about our clients—what they are or not capable of,” and once it is safe to meet in person again, this core lesson will be at the forefront of making plans with clients, Hanna says. 

—By Marcail Distante, Community Outreach and Program Coordinator for the James H. Binger Center for New Americans 
 

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