ND Law students win asylum for families through immigration externship

Author: Doerr, Sarah

Josh Hill and Sandra Weir standing with their asylum clients
Josh Hill and Sandra Weir standing with their asylum clients

Each semester, the Notre Dame Law School offers students the opportunity to engage in true public service by providing immigration legal services to low-income immigrants in Indiana through the National Immigrant Justice Center externship.

The NIJC externship provides second- and third-year students under the supervision of experienced immigration attorneys, the opportunity to represent individuals and families in asylum proceedings and other immigration court cases. One of several externship programs offered to ND Law students, the NIJC externship provides students an experiential learning opportunity through which they can expand their knowledge and understanding of the profession and build upon the values and lessons discussed in the classroom.

Under the direction of Lisa Koop, adjunct professor and director of legal services at the NIJC, students typically work in pairs of two during both the fall and spring semesters and handle representation for one or more NIJC clients.

In early February, after months of dedicated work during the fall 2023 semester, the legal team of Josh Hill and Sandra Weir successfully secured asylum for their clients.

Sandra Weir sitting on a couch with her asylum clients
Carmen Rosa Rida and Nicole Theriot and their client 

Hill and Weir worked with a family from Central America who were seeking asylum in the United States in response to the threat of gang violence in their home country. The pair held weekly meetings with their clients, with the help of Notre Dame undergraduate volunteer interpreter Iliana Gamboa, to hear about their experiences and learn more about what led them to flee their home. Their goal was to compile enough evidence to craft a legal argument to support the asylum claim.

“The NIJC experience allowed me to exercise practical lawyering skills by taking the knowledge we have learned in class about interviewing, brief writing, and legal arguments, and providing the opportunity to exercise those skills,” said Weir. “While classroom curriculum allows students to develop skills through mock cases and theoretical situations, to be given the opportunity to practice these skills with a real judgment at stake is incredibly motivating and impactful.”

Thanks to Hill and Weir’s assistance, the family was granted asylum. They now, with the continued support of the NIJC, will seek to obtain their green cards, and look forward to the opportunity to apply for citizenship in the future.

“The NIJC externship gave so much meaning to what I was learning in the classroom, whether in my immigration courses or as to the practice of law generally,” Hill said. “I would wholeheartedly encourage any interested students to do the NIJC externship. It is certainly the most personally meaningful and formative work I have done in law school, and it has given me a backdrop against which to compare future legal work, in terms of people and results I am proud to be working for and serving.”

Fall externship teammates Carmen Rosa Rida and Nicole Theriot also won asylum for their client, a young mother from Central America who had come to the United States with her two sons in order to escape political persecution in their home country. The family had been involved in anti-corruption protests, resulting in severe harm to many of their relatives. Fellow protesters and their children were disappearing under troubling circumstances, or being murdered outright. This case offered Rida and Theriot the opportunity to expand what they had learned in the classroom and put it to the test in a real-life case.

“A big reason why I chose to attend Notre Dame Law School was because I saw a video about the NIJC externship experience and knew that I wanted to choose a law school where service to others is at its core,” Rida said. “It was impressive that students could have such a profound impact so early on and were trusted with and guided through difficult cases. I knew I wanted to take part in the NIJC externship as soon as possible so I could put the knowledge and skills I was gaining to the test, and improve the lives of others in doing so.”

Rida and Theriot spent weeks interviewing their client, collecting case evidence, and carrying out research on the conditions and political climate in the family’s home country. Accompanied by Notre Dame undergraduate student Nayla Hernandez, who acted as a volunteer interpreter, the team met with their client on a weekly basis to gather information and prepare for trial. After appearing before the Chicago Immigration Court, the family was granted asylum on what was coincidentally the youngest son’s birthday. Rida and Theriot shared that the family is adjusting well to life in the United States, and thankful for the opportunity to be safe and plan for the future. As a result of their asylum status, they will be able to apply for Lawful Permanent Residency status, and have a pathway to citizenship.

“The NIJC externship is a meaningful opportunity for students to use the skills and knowledge we are learning in the classroom to advocate for a refugee in need of legal assistance,” said Theriot. “It was a tangible and rewarding experience being able to apply the legal skills I have gained in law school to help a young mother and her sons win asylum in the United States.”

Theriot also joined fellow student Kathleen Ryan on an additional fall externship team. The pair are still awaiting their trial, which is set for March 20.

“It is a great privilege to work with ND Law students as they guide their asylum seeking clients through the complex, challenging, and sometimes inhumane immigration process. Through their tenacious advocacy, survivors of persecution get to be safe, families get to stay together, and justice is served,” said Koop. “Preparing an asylum case is a daunting task. I am so grateful for this program at Notre Dame Law School and for the students who, year after year, take on this work and accomplish so much.”

Because the United States does not guarantee the right to legal counsel for asylum seekers in immigration proceedings, the NIJC externship offers critical legal assistance to clients that may otherwise go in front of a court unrepresented and face deportation. Since 2013, over 100 students have worked on dozens of cases through the National Immigrant Justice Center, and have maintained about a 90% approval rate. More information about the NIJC externship can be found on the Notre Dame Law School’s website.