Immigration Law Clinic receives $18,000 grant from the American Bar Endowment

The Georgia State Immigration Law Clinic trains attorneys to advocate for noncitizens who have been denied work permits unlawfully, which is why they received an $18,000 grant. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

According to Georgia State News Hub, the American Bar Endowment awarded Georgia State College of Law Immigration Clinic $18,000 for their performances on training attorneys to advocate for noncitizens who had the government deny them work permits unlawfully. 

Georgia State Law clinical faculty will use this grant to train attorneys at Alston & Bird, Kilpatrick Townsend and Troutman Pepper, enabling them to handle 10 federal district court lawsuits against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

According to Will Miller, the clinical supervising attorney at the Immigration Clinic, the clinic represents noncitizens in removal proceedings at the Atlanta Immigration Court. Many clients are seeking asylum from the U.S. government because they fled danger in their home countries.

“To establish eligibility for asylum, the noncitizen must show not only that they were harmed in their home country, but also that they were targeted on account of one of five ‘protected grounds’: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group,” Miller said.

The Immigration and Nationality Act states that noncitizens can apply for work permits while waiting for their asylum application’s decision. The work permit is crucial for them as it enables them to get a driver’s license, an SSN and allows them to work in the U.S legally. 

Nonetheless, the decision of the employment authorization document (EAD) applications isn’t always fair. Miller said one client had two daughters listed on her asylum application, but only one of the two girls’ EAD application was approved, and the other one got denied. 

“These denials cause major upheavals in families’ lives,” he said.

Miller thought having a lawyer can significantly increase the asylum seeker’s chances of success in immigration court. 

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University, maintains data on asylum applications’ adjudication in the U.S. immigration courts. According to their statistics, only 18% of unrepresented citizens received asylum in 2020. Over 30% of represented citizens did receive it.

“Legal representation is especially important for asylum seekers at the Atlanta Immigration Court, where over the course of fiscal years 2015 to 2020, not a single judge had a denial rate of less than 91%,” Miller said.

Miller said that noncitizens with pending asylum applications are authorized to work lawfully in the U.S., provided they meet specific requirements. However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that adjudicates work-permit applications, sometimes denies these without a lawful basis. 

A denial from USCIS is not appealable, so the noncitizen must re-submit the application, requiring a costly filing fee. They hope that a different, more competent USCIS officer will review it on the second go-around. 

Another option is to sue USCIS in federal district court, but the lawyers who know how to handle these kinds of lawsuits can often charge more than the noncitizen can afford.

According to Miller, the American Bar Endowment (ABE) recently awarded the Clinic a grant to teach local “big firm” lawyers how to sue USCIS in federal court. 

This kind of grant, known as an “opportunity grant,” is awarded by the ABE “to support new, boots-on-the-ground, innovative programs and projects that serve the immediate and critical legal needs of the public and are of importance to the legal profession and its concerns for access to justice.” 

The Clinic was one of only 15 to receive an ABE opportunity grant out of 150 total applicants. The three local firms agreed to file collectively and on a pro-bono basis.

“We will also create video modules and other training materials to be housed on the Clinic’s website,” Miller said.

Miller said that the local firms’ lawsuits would provide a remedy for at least 10 noncitizens who otherwise would have to waste time and money submitting additional applications to USCIS. The training will give lawyers the proper tools to handle their cases.

“Increasing the number of lawyers capable of suing USCIS in federal court necessarily will drive down the fees charged for representation, Miller said.

Rahma Taha, co-President of the Georgia State Immigration Law Society, believes the clinic is doing a fantastic job as a resource to the Atlanta community and a teaching platform for Georgia State students at the College of Law. 

“Personally, my experience with the clinic is wonderful. I love the work I am doing, and I have really developed great confidence in my ability as an attorney since working with the clinic,” Taha said. 

Before her clinic experience, Taha struggled with imposter syndrome despite having completed two internships plus a non-immigration clinic. Now, she feels better prepared to join the legal workforce upon graduation after completing two semesters with the clinic. 

Taha thought the clinic’s greatest success is its contribution to the academic experience. Georgia State Law students only had one immigration course before the creation of the Immigration Clinic.

Although the only immigration course is incredibly educational, it wasn’t enough for Taha. She found herself in a sort of educational desert after finding out her interest in immigration law in her second semester. 

Since then, the university added an Immigration Clinic, increased the credit hours one can receive with the clinic and added a second course in “Crimmigration,” a course exploring the intersection between criminal and immigration law. 

“Now, I can graduate with a full year of experience in complex immigration, an understanding of immigration services from simple work petitions to intricate asylum cases, and even be equipped to represent non-citizens in criminal courts,” Taha said.

Taha thought expansion is the best improvement it could make. Working in the clinic has helped her create an incredible network with immigration attorneys within Atlanta. She thinks such a valuable resource needs to be available to more students. 

“Expansion would also increase the good we could do for our community. Georgia State Law would be investing in the city it loves while providing its students the unmatched chance to litigate in some of the most hostile immigration courts in the country,” Taha said.