More than a dozen Worcester State students will be serving as trained advocates for local asylum seekers during the spring semester, helping to untangle the complex process intended to give sanctuary to immigrants fleeing from dangerous situations in their home countries. The training they received is a result of a new partnership between Worcester State and the Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice (SCIJ), a Waltham-based non-profit organization.
Worcester State is only the second institution to partner with SCIJ, joining Brown University.
“This is an amazing opportunity for our undergraduate students interested in immigration law and advocacy to help with real cases in our community, the same way law students might in a law clinic,” says Assistant Professor Adam Saltsman, Ph.D., director of the Urban Action Institute, which is in the Urban Studies Department and hosting the partnership with the clinic. “Statistics show that asylum seekers are more successful when they have representation, but there aren’t enough lawyers out there to meet the need.”
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse’s Immigration Project, more than 500,000 people are seeking asylum nationwide. Without legal representation, 90 percent have their cases denied; with representation, they are five times more likely to win their cases.
An inaugural cohort of 13 Worcester State students, most of whom are immigrants or first-generation themselves, completed SCIJ’s semester-long training this fall and will begin working with local immigration attorneys starting in January 2021. Their duties might include helping with in-take of new cases, researching the conflict that is forcing the client to seek asylum, or filling out the correct forms needed to get the case before a judge.
Vincent Pellegrino ’22, one of this fall’s trainees, says he learned how difficult it is to navigate the immigration system for asylum seekers.
“The training really exposed the flaws in our immigration system. The process for seeking asylum is incredibly complex, and in some ways intentionally so to prevent people from having easy access,” says Pellegrino, who intends after graduation to enter law school to study international law. “”Personally, I think this is a great way to assist people who need help navigating our immigration system. I’m interested in any way we can help people, to better their lives, and make some real changes to the system.”
SCIJ executive director and founder Jonathan Goldman says his organization grew out of an established training program at Brandeis University, and is guided by academic advisors at Bentley University’s Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Center, which offers research and consultation services to non-profits.
“Our work engages students at the intersection of community organizing and direct service,” says Goldman. “We give students practical skills, like how do you work with clients, but we also show them how to be effective community organizers to bring about broader change.”
In addition to training, SCIJ collaborates with local immigrant advocacy groups, as well as immigration attorneys, who act as mentors and official attorneys of record. As students take on cases, they will also
be receiving ongoing support from SCIJ through bi-weekly case rounds, meetings with SCIJ staff to review their case’s progress, and professional development workshops.
“Students tell me it feels like this program captures who they are as an individual and the work they care about,” says Goldman.
“It’s a great experience if you want to make a difference,” agrees Pellegrino.