While reform of what many see as a broken immigration system has been a political football tossed from both sides of the aisle, last year’s presidential campaign put the issue front and center. Since the election of President Donald Trump, promises he made on the campaign trail have quickly turned into presidential action. And that has led many law students to take action of their own. Prompted by these policies, law students launched a new group in November, Stanford Advocates for Immigrants’ Rights (SAIR).

“After the election, a lot of us reached out to Jayashri and Lisa, who run the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and Jayashri brought us all together, saying that we should have a meeting and figure out what can be done,” says Haley Millner, JD ’18. “We hadn’t really united as students interested in immigrants’ rights issues before that moment.”

“The impetus behind the group was to do what we can, as law stu- dents, with faculty and other members of the Stanford community, to stand with immigrant communities and help protect their rights,” says Max Schoening, JD ’18, adding that over a hundred students from the law school and across campus have signed up with the group to help.

Tackling Legal Challenges of Immigration 2
SAIR members (left to right) Hailey Millner, Adrienne Pon, Tory Tilton, Max Schoening, Elena Rodríguez Armenta, all JD ’18
Photo by Rod Searcey

“President Trump’s executive orders span a broad range of activity,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and SAIR faculty mentor. She explains that there are three executive orders concerning immigrants. The first is the travel ban, also known as the Muslim ban; the second involves border enforcement, which covers refugees and asylum seekers and others who are trying to enter the U.S.; and the third concerns interior enforcement policies governing who’s already here and how Immigration and Customs Enforcement should treat those individuals.

“These areas—the interior enforcement, the border enforcement, and the international community and legal implications—all have their own unique legal challenges,” says Adrienne Pon, JD ’18. “Some of it is ground that has been trod upon before, certain constitutional rights that we know. But a lot of it is also testing the bounds of the law in ways that really haven’t been challenged—relying on parts of statutes that haven’t been used in the same way, relying on parts of the Constitution so that there is much debate about their interpretation.”

SAIR’s activities attempt to ad- dress many of the challenges facing immigrants in light of the administration’s initiatives.

Millner cites one of SAIR’s efforts: Teach-ins to help students better understand the law and the new policies that immigrants are facing or may face. “We felt that there was a need for understanding what immigration law is, and what problems immigrants face today,” says Millner, noting that there have been four sessions so far covering Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Immigration Law 101, how the immigrant community is affecting the U.S. economy, and immigrants’ rights during detention.

Students also established a Research Bank to provide extra research capacity to nonprofits working on immigrants’ rights issues, partnering primarily with the ACLU, the Asian Law Caucus, and Legal Aid at Work.

“In our short couple of months, more than 30 students have put together over 50 complex research memos that have been used in active litigation and various other efforts,” says Pon.

Yet another key project for the group is pro bono legal work.

“We wanted, essentially, a direct service volunteer army on call so that we could respond to new policies as they were released, such as the travel ban,” says Tory Tilton, JD ’18. “So we partnered with the pre-existing immigration pro bono program at Stan- ford Law School. And we were able to sign up dozens of additional pro bono volunteers.”

Tilton explains that with new policy announcements coming at a fast clip, the need for volunteers to mobilize quickly is essential. “Within 48 hours of the January travel ban executive or- der, we were able to rally pro bono volunteers to provide one-on-one services for people in the Stanford community who were directly affected.”

For Elena Rodríguez Armenta, JD ’18, who led two of the teach-ins, one on DACA and one an introduction to immigration law, this work touches close to home.

“Immigration is the story of my family and my own personal story. My grandparents raised me in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, until my mother and I moved to Brownsville, Texas, which is right across the border on the U.S. side between southern Texas and northern Mexico. The community I’m from is very much directly affected by any- thing that the current administration does,” she says. “SAIR for me was as much a reaction out of fear as it was of solidarity with my home.”

Rodríguez Armenta is fluent in Spanish so she often volunteers for one of the group’s regular pro bono activities with the nonprofit Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.

“The saddest and most rewarding thing about immigration pro bono work is having people connect with you because you are a part of their community. It opens up a level of comfort that allows them to cry with you, for one, and express their enormous fear,” she says. “It gives me a continued sense of obligation to keep coming back to this work.”