A STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
by Maria Feldman
Juris Doctor Candidate, May 2017
My passion for helping others and making a positive difference in someone’s life was the main impetus that led me to apply to law school. In particular, my focus is centered on helping undocumented immigrants on Long Island - specifically in Suffolk County - obtain lawful status in the United States. With that vision in mind and the support of my family, I found Touro Law. Not only is Touro Law a place to learn and grow professionally, it also allows students to apply that knowledge through its public interest clinics, civil externships, and fellowships and give back to the community.
From day one at orientation, I felt a sense of unity among professors and students that made me feel comfortable and ready to get started. I knew then that I would have the support I needed for law school. At Touro, I was able to establish a rapport with professors and friendships with fellow students that I know will last beyond law school. It is true that law school is intense and there were times when I truly thought I wouldn’t make it, but in the back of my mind, I knew the support was there to help me through my journey. By discussing my issues openly and honestly with my colleagues I realized I wasn’t alone. The academic and moral support and encouragement I received from professors and fellow students was pivotal for me in staying the course and excelling in law school.
Touro’s clinical programs in public interest allowed me to explore a field of law that I’ve always been interested in. In the spring semester of my second year, I worked as law student intern in the immigration clinic. I also received a public interest fellowship to work there in the summer of the same year, which I found to be both educational and rewarding. In recent years, there’s been an influx of over 11,000 unaccompanied and undocumented children to the United States from three Central American countries which they call “the triangle” – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These minors leave their homeland to escape not only poverty but extreme violence that is prevalent in their neighborhoods and even in their schools. In many instances, it is the child’s own parents who encourage the child to leave, even though they know the trip to the U.S. will be dangerous, because they know that even though the child doesn’t have permission to enter the U.S., they will at least have a chance for a future. Once these children arrive at the U.S.-Mexican border, they are held in detention centers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There, they go through a roughly two-month process, which consists of, among other things, physical and mental examinations. The children stay at these centers until a relative or family friend living in the U.S. is contacted so that they can take temporary responsibility for them. Eventually, we receive these cases through referrals from other non-profits in the area or through referrals from former clients.
Our job at the clinic is to interview the child and their temporary guardian to gather enough information that will help us determine whether they qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a U.S. government-sponsored program, which has been in effect for years. This program allows these children to apply for and receive legal status here in the U.S. The requirements are that the minor has to be under 21, unmarried and abandoned by one or both parents. These interviews allowed me to interact with these children on a personal level and to listen closely to their stories. Most of them don’t speak English and are afraid. Because I am fluent in Spanish, I was able to establish and maintain an open and honest line of communication with them. Personally, it was very rewarding to see how their eyes lit up and the expressions of gratitude they manifested when they realized they could speak to someone in their own language and not be afraid to express their feelings. At the clinic, I was involved in these cases from start to finish - from the initial interview to drafting petitions, motions, briefs and even conducting direct questioning in open court.
At Touro, I found my niche. I took a gamble but it’s already paying off. I am now a third-year law student and my public interest work continues. I am currently doing an externship at Immigration Legal Services of Long Island, a non-profit in Brentwood where I continue to expand my knowledge in immigration law. This placement also gives me the opportunity to continue to gain work experience in my field while serving my community. Touro made this possible for me and I will be forever grateful.