Clinic to take holistic approach to immigration and civil issues

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

When the Ave Maria School of Law moved from Ann Arbor to Naples, Florida in 2009, its pro bono immigrant rights clinic went with it, leaving a void in Washtenaw County.

In January, the Thomas M. Cooley Immigrant Civil Advocacy Clinic will open in the same building. And now it will also help immigrants with civil issues such as family law and landlord-tenant cases.

"What makes this one unique in Michigan and very likely unique in the country is combining in a holistic way the issues individuals have both for immigration status as well as civil issues," said Associate Professor Jason Eyster, who ran Ave Maria's Asylum and Rights clinic from 2005 to 2011, and will now head Cooley's clinic. "Having done this for five years, I've found that often clients were more concerned about their electricity being wrongfully turned off, or other issues they had that were immediate in their lives, compared to an asylum case which wasn't going to take place for another year and a half."

The clinic came about after Dean Joan Vestrand asked a group of lawyers, judges, and community leaders what was the most needed type of pro bono services in Washtenaw County. The answer? An immigration clinic that also assists clients with civil law issues.

Eyster said that with the impasse in Congress during the last decade, it's been impossible to deal with the large population of immigrants, either by getting them to leave the United States, to the detriment of the economy, or by finding some way to regularize their status.

With no immigration reform on the horizon, he said, many immigrants are homeowners engaged in their communities but without access to legal aid. So it's important to recognize immigrants' rights regardless of status, he said.

"U.S. and state law make it very clear that individuals are entitled to protections regardless of whether they're here with authorization," said Eyster, who was an immigration attorney in Ann Arbor before working for Ave Maria. "It is legally required that if someone works, they are entitled to be paid for that work without regard to their status. If someone is a renter and that building has major defects, the individual has the right to recourse. One can distinguish between the individual's immigration status and the status they have as an individual within our society."

The Thomas M. Cooley Immigrant Community Advocacy Clinic will be an evening clinic geared for students who work during the day and take evening classes.

Eyster is excited about the possibility that at least one Washtenaw County judge could hold a regular evening court session at the law school, making it more possible for the students to be involved in representation in court. Otherwise the students will arrange with their employers to take time off work to be there in day court.

Eyster, a Chelsea resident who moved with Ave Maria Law School for two years until recently moving back to Michigan, is eager to get involved again in immigration issues here in Michigan.

"People come here from all over the world -- from Russia and China and South America and Romania," he said. "So it's a very exciting area in which to be involved in immigration assistance."

Published: Tue, Oct 11, 2011

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