Life Experience: Professor spearheads Immigration Law Clinic

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Human migration is as much a fact of life as eating, drinking, working and dying, notes Professor Alex Vernon, director of the Immigration Clinic at Detroit Mercy Law.

“Whether immigration laws and policies get more restrictive or open up it seems to me there will be a need to bring family members and workers in, and for people here to try and stay and build a life here,” he says. “Many of them will need lawyers to help them navigate a complex system, and often those lawyers are as spread out around the world as the people they assist, so it’s an area of law that can be quite portable.” 

Vernon enjoys opening his students up to realities they may not be aware of – “Struggles that play out in people’s lives around the country and around the world,” he says. “Often they are introduced to issues such as extreme poverty, familial violence, and persecution that can seem so remote to many of us.

“Then again, sometimes I’ll find my students have life experiences with these very issues themselves, and that can make for a very interesting dynamic. I learn a lot from my students – and they get to work in a
very direct way with a real person who has a real issue with consequences. It may be life or death, or it may be about keeping the family together, or getting out of detention, or getting a work permit and coming out of the shadows.”

Vernon joined the Detroit Mercy Law faculty in June.

“I came here to be part of an institution with a strong commitment to experiential education, and where the Jesuit and Mercy traditions emphasize a holistic education...we talk about ‘Educating the Complete Lawyer,’ and being men and women for others,” he says. “I’ve always been impressed by the impact Detroit Mercy Law graduates have had locally, nationally and internationally and I look forward to seeing what our students will accomplish.”

His students gain valuable legal training by working with clients participating in immigration hearings, and administrative interviews, and interacting with practicing attorneys for guidance and collaboration on cases. Students pursue a wide range of relief including asylum, humanitarian parole, cancellation of removal, prosecutorial discretion, and relief for crime victims and unaccompanied minors.

According to Vernon, his students often find that the deeper they dig into a matter, the more complex it becomes. In a recent interesting case, the surface level issue was resolved fairly quickly with a grant of status “and a client on his merry way with a ‘green-card,’” Vernon says.

“What was uncovered was that the client was trafficked into the United States as a family member, with the trafficker presumably still free to victimize others in the same way. So the conversation may go beyond securing status for the client.”

In another matter, Vernon and his clinic team undertook to help an unaccompanied child finalize the process to get residency.

“Through various twists and turns and changes of heart on the part of the young person, we – specifically one of my students – ended up finding an alternative family placement for the child when the original placement fell through, and this ended up making the difference in convincing an unhappy adolescent not to give up on her case. My students are learning to be problem solvers!”

Vernon is looking forward to continuing the clinic’s relationships with community partners working to address the needs of migrants.

“Particularly as migration and refugee issues have captured the public’s attention of late,” he says. “I’m looking to make new connections too.”

It was the problem-solving aspect of the law that drew Vernon to the legal profession.

“I enjoy being a problem solver,” he says. “When people despair that something can’t be done I enjoy the challenge of finding a way, provided the goal is worthwhile. Helping people has always been a worthwhile goal, and when I realized lawyers are uniquely placed to help people solve problems worth solving, I was interested in being one.”

An immigrant himself – from Jamaica, to Canada, and then to the United States, Vernon has always enjoyed interacting with people from other countries and cultures.

“I’m grateful for my Jamaican heritage, and the experience of being part of a world-wide diaspora which celebrates our national motto, ‘Out of many, one people.’  I moved to Canada at a very young age and enjoyed growing up in the multicultural metropolis that is Toronto,” he says.

“In working with people from other countries I realized many of them had immigration concerns that interfered with just about every aspect of every-day life. They couldn’t take for granted being able to be together with loved ones, being free to work, worship and live as they saw best. The immigration lawyers I met when trying to help these people inspired me to become a lawyer myself, specifically to work with migrants.”

A graduate of St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, Vernon earned his undergrad degree in political science, with honors, from the University of Toronto, and his law degree from the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, where he gained extensive clinical experience practicing before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and Detroit Immigration Court, and had successful asylum claims and battered spouse self-petitions. Active in the Asylum and Immigration Rights Clinic during his time as a student at AMSL, he also served as president of the Lex Vitae Society and earned the St. Ives Medallion for defense of the Catholic moral and social order. He is a past president of the Ave Maria School of Law Alumni Association.

While in law school, Vernon married his wife Carole, who is from Wisconsin and decided to settle in Windsor, Ontario, “to be within reach of both of our families.” After practicing with Detroit area immigration law firms for 6 years, he and his family spent 4 years in Southwest Florida where he ran the immigration law clinic at the Ave Maria School of Law.

“We cherish our time there but are glad to be back home,” he says.

Vernon, who also serves as Of Counsel for Siegel, Gross & Tou, P.C., in Clawson, took part in “Become a Citizen Day” on September 19 at the Chaldean Community Foundation, one of many similar events organized around the country on that day.

“It felt good to be a part of the process of someone finding their new forever home,’” he says. “I assisted a young woman who had fled from Iraq. You can imagine the gratitude she feels at being safely here in the United States, and taking the final step towards full participation in American life.”

Fluent in French, in his younger days Vernon traveled in Western Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean; now with a large family, travel is usually limited to wherever he can get to on wheels.

“I did enjoy the freedom of traveling in Europe, particularly as a gateway to getting elsewhere. It’s pretty safe and convenient to cross the continent and experience many languages and cultures in what would be the same distance as a nice North American road trip,” he says.

“Where would I like to go next? I’d like to get somewhere where I can be helpful and I’m trying to put together a trip where I could bring some students somewhere to help refugees document their cases and apply for relief.”

Vernon and his wife have four children ranging in age from 2 to 10, with a fifth child due in the New Year.

“We enjoy spending time visiting family and friends,” he says. “We like to get the children to try new activities so we’ve been into soccer, basketball, archery, piano, kayaking, and bird watching.

“I enjoy including the family in my work, and they love coming out to immigration outreaches we’ve done in various communities.”

 

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