Attorney guides law students in immigration law at clinic

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Although immigration laws can be harsh, many are founded on sensible principles of fairness and safety, notes Joanna Kloet, a supervising attorney at the Michigan State University College of Law Immigration Law Clinic.

“However, the laws are overwhelmingly misunderstood by the public, and the execution of the laws is wildly unpredictable and inconsistent — these realities produce devastating results in many cases,” she says. “The wide range of discretion granted to those who execute those laws can result in inconsistency across jurisdictions and individual cases — with shattering outcomes for individuals, families, and employers. Beyond that, some of the laws are just unfair.”

With Clinic Director Veronica Thronson, Kloet helps her students serve clients of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds in various stages of immigration proceedings.

“Many of our clients have been victims of dreadful violence at the hands of their own family or country,” she says. “Being able to assist these clients, young and old, with their simple goal of obtaining a safe and productive life in the United States, is incredibly rewarding.

“These cases also help me as an individual to understand the impact of our collective actions not only on our lives in the United States, but on the world at large. For me, this practice has made the world seem smaller and has showed me our real power as individuals to make positive changes in our lives and others’ lives.”

According to Kloet, the most frustrating cases are those where the client is a long-time U.S. resident  — often brought here decades earlier as a child, through no fault of her own — and has absolutely no human, social, or economic connection to the country of birth.

“Based on immigration status alone, the laws often unjustly treat many of those who are our friends, co-workers, and family members as national security threats, all the while failing to provide any lawful path to citizenship for these individuals who want nothing more than to obtain lawful immigration status,” she says.

The clinic’s work is also specially funded to provide legal services to non-citizen minor children who are facing the difficult and unfriendly immigration system, says Kloet.

“Being the voice for a vulnerable client like an abused, impoverished child who is a victim of circumstances and suddenly confronting an unwelcoming framework of laws is both extremely necessary and extremely rewarding,” she says.

Clinic services are provided pro bono, since — unlike in criminal proceedings — in immigration proceedings an indigent individual is not provided an attorney at government expense.

“Our clients are receiving high-quality free legal services in difficult and high-stakes cases, many involving matters of life and death, when they may not otherwise have been able to afford counsel,” Kloet says.

Because the clinical course is elective and students are not guaranteed admission, when accepted students start the semester, they are typically enthusiastic about the opportunities to directly represent clients and inquisitive about the application of the laws, Kloet notes.

“As a result, clients gain a legal representative who is dedicated to their cases, aspires to making a good impression on the client and the courts, and who is excited about becoming a good lawyer,” she says.

In addition to learning about rules of practice and ethics, the immigration laws and regulations, and the often-stark realities insofar as the law’s application, students communicate directly with real clients, make strategic decisions, and appear as student attorneys in immigration court, all under attorney supervision.

“These are necessary, daunting, and exhilarating learning experiences for a lawyer-in-training, and are not traditionally available in the existing law school pedagogy,” Kloet says. “And students come to the clinic to learn, so a mistake here will not cost a student his job.

“Best of all, the future clients of these future lawyers will be better served by the students’ clinical experiences. Clinical legal instruction, like a physician’s residency, is a critical part of improving the quality of services provided to clients, communities, and society at large.”

Kloet, who also teaches a separate course in “Immigration Consequences of Criminal Activity” at MSU Law, did not have immigration law on her radar when she graduated law school. She spent her first year as a prehearing attorney at the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing.

“Michigan’s COA employs some of the most brilliant individuals with whom I’ve ever worked,” she says. “They are talented and kind and their guidance provided me with a strong foundation for legal writing and analysis.”

Her entry into immigration law was pure serendipity, when she was hired at the U.S. Department of Justice through the Attorney General’s Honors Program and worked at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, serving as attorney advisor for six federal immigration judges in the 10th Circuit in Denver and Salt Lake City.

“I’ve been happily practicing immigration law ever since,” she says. “I didn’t find my passion — my passion found me. And I’m very happy it did, because I absolutely love my job.”

According to Kloet, her experiences in Colorado and Utah are the reason immigration law was not just a “flash in the pan” for her.

“The immigration judges and staff with whom I worked in Denver and Salt Lake City were fair, hard-working, and pleasant people who were very kind to the people in the court, and the whole experience revealed to me the complexity of the immigration laws and our foreign policy, as well as the susceptibility of these laws to misunderstanding and abuse.” she says.

“More generally, I was born and raised a ‘Yooper’ and the individualistic spirit of the west, and especially its wide-open spaces, resonated with me. It just felt like home in a way.”

In 2009, she returned to Michigan and spent five years practicing primarily immigration law and indigent defense at the law firm of Smith, Haughey, Rice, & Roegge in Traverse City, before landing the job at MSU Law, her alma mater.

Kloet earned her undergrad degree in psychology from the University of Michigan, with a minor in moral philosophy, and in Spanish, and was on the U-M Figure Skating Team from 1998 to 2001, competing as an individual and as a member of the synchronized skating team that was national collegiate champions in Synchronized Skating in 1999.

“As the psychology degree might suggest, I’m fascinated by human behavior and our individual and collective definitions of legality and criminality, and how these concepts transform over time and across populations,” she says.

Although she mulled pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, Kloet decided to go into law, and earned a J.D., summa cum laude, from MSU Law where she was an associate editor of the Law Review and recipient of the Jurisprudence Achievement Award in Contracts and in Will Drafting. “Lawyers have tools they can use to trigger an established process and a chain of events that are engineered to generate results — good or bad,” she says. “Lawyers can take action and obtain satisfaction upon seeing the results of these efforts, and I liked that. And as a kid, my parents and friends always accused me of being a future lawyer, so I did it to further irritate them,” she adds wryly.

A further plus of MSU Law “was being accepted back into the family by my parents, who are huge Sparty fans, and who never visited me while I went to school in the College Town that Shall not be Named.” 

Kloet currently makes her home in East Lansing, where in the winters she coaches fundamentals of figure skating to children part-time through the Basic Skills program at Suburban Ice.

A native of Gladstone in Michigan’s U.P., Kloet has a younger sister who is an engineer and a brother who works for the family business. “As a family, we are 100 percent Dutch and 100 percent Yooper,” she says. “Believe me, the math does make sense once you meet us.”