UW-Madison: Free clinic aids immigrants with answers to legal questions

MADISON – Immigrants with legal questions about their immigration status can receive help through a free clinic staffed by Madison-area attorneys and students from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The Community Immigration Law Center, created by Madison-area attorneys and advocates for immigrants, offers twice-monthly walk-in clinics where people who might not otherwise have access to affordable help can receive information about immigration-law issues in consultations with attorneys.

Attorneys and community groups that launched the clinic in July observed a gap in legal services for immigrants, especially for those who simply needed questions answered. Immigration is one of the most complex areas of law, and some immigrants – particularly those who are undocumented – are reluctant to discuss their situations with lawyers, organizers say.

“This is a great forum to answer those questions,” says Marsha Mansfield, director of the Law School’s Economic Justice Institute and a member of the center’s board. “It’s really been a wonderful model for the collaboration between private attorneys, social-service organizations and the UW Law School in getting the program up and running.”

Jean-Rene Watchou, director of international outreach for Christ Presbyterian Church, which has provided seed money and space for the clinic, is an immigrant himself. Watchou came to the U.S. from Cameroon eight years ago, and knowing the stress of waiting through the immigration process motivated him to organize the group of a dozen local attorneys, social-service agencies and students to get the clinic going.

The group received a $3,750 grant from the State Bar of Wisconsin, and local immigration attorneys comprise most of its 11-member board of directors.

“You have the sense that your fate depends on an individual … someone who can decide whether you can stay here or you have to leave,” says Watchou, who is a permanent resident of the U.S. and expects to become a citizen within the next two years. “When your situation is not cleared up yet, you’re still in limbo, and then you don’t know if you’re going to stay, if you’re going to go back.

The clinic is open from 2-5 p.m. the second and fourth Fridays of each month at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 E. Gorham St., Madison. Clinics this month are scheduled for Jan. 8 and 22.

Attorneys are available to offer consultations and case assessments on immigration issues, as well as help filling out immigration forms. Anyone with more complicated legal needs is referred to an immigration attorney.

The clinic is not formally affiliated with UW Law School, although about four students offer to work alongside the volunteer attorneys for each session. Volunteers are coordinated through the Latino Law Students Association.

One of the volunteers is third-year student Andrés Cerritos, who says working at the clinic is deeply personal because of his own family’s experience with the immigration system. His parents, who escaped the civil war in El Salvador, were granted political asylum in the U.S. when he was 4 years old.

“It’s rewarding in the sense that it’s come full circle,” says Cerritos, who heads the Latino Law Students Association’s advocacy committee and has encouraged the Law School to offer more opportunities for students to study immigration law. “There was an attorney that took the time to help out my family and petition for political asylum, to show my father the options available to him. I consider it a welcomed responsibility to be able to provide a similar service to people who are in a similar situation.”

Another volunteer is first-year law student Brian Huttenburg, who says his goal to work in underserved communities when he graduates from law school could include representing the many low-income immigrants who often can’t afford legal help.

“Not a lot of law students might have exposure to underserved communities or other places,” Huttenburg says. Working in the clinic “gives students hands-on experience, but it can also teach them about real life.”

Watchou says the clinic grew out of a need to inform immigrants of their rights so they won’t fall prey to unethical people who might try to take advantage of their immigration status. Sometimes, immigration services-for-hire will promise outcomes that aren’t possible under immigration law, legal experts say.

“When you’re in that situation, sometimes you’re really willing to pay whatever it takes to have your situation fixed,” he says.

Organizers of the clinic are aware that some might be critical of efforts to assist illegal immigrants, but say many undocumented people have legal remedies available that they deserve to know about. Sometimes, the best information attorneys can offer is that someone should return to a home country before that person’s legal status is further threatened, says Madison lawyer Linda Clifford, who volunteers at the clinic.

“The clinic certainly doesn’t encourage illegal immigration, but it does encourage the exercise of legal rights, and that’s how we define our mission,” Clifford says. “There’s a perception that becoming legal is a lot like running down to get your driver’s license… it’s much more complicated than that and people need to be guided so they don’t inadvertently make matters worse for themselves.”