POV: How do you teach immigration law during an immigration crisis?

Professor Katie Herbert Meyer in the Law Library at Washington University
Katie Herbert Meyer, director of the Immigration Clinic at Washington University's School of Law, discusses teaching immigration law during an immigration crisis. Photo by Joe Angeles/Washington University

When someone new asks me what I do for a living, I answer with 
a smile, while cringing inside as I explain my area of expertise and await a response. For 16 years, I have been a proud immigration lawyer. Recently, I also became a clinical law professor. Immigration is a really hot topic today. I rarely find someone who has no opinion or feelings about the subject.

I am passionate about the work I do with immi­grants and refugees, and with my students. Over the years, I’ve often been asked why I practice immigration law. The answer is my clients. It’s their hope. And, it’s their stories. Immigrants’ stories of sacrifice, hardship, perseverance, trauma and resilience are what built our great country, and continue to be an important part of the fabric of our nation and our local communities. I feel privileged to be able to walk with my clients through their years-long journeys to achieve the security of permanent status in the U.S.

Immigration policy and its implementation have always been influenced by politics. Reasonable people have differed on the best solution for our country. But today’s political rhetoric has raised the temperature and lowered the civility. Political leaders are stoking nativist fears to justify extreme restrictions 
on immigration that betray the foundational principles of our legal system.

The law is in a constant state of flux. New executive-branch agency decisions and regulatory changes have become nearly weekly occurrences. As quickly as I can read and digest the changes, legal challenges are mounted, and the new rules are blocked. Yet the humanitarian crisis continues to intensify. People are suffering while politicians and citizens debate their right to seek safety in our country.

In this time of uncertainty, educating today’s law students to become effective lawyers 
and advocates is essential to ensuring a just immigration system. There is a dire shortage 
of immigration attorneys, particularly those who practice asylum law. In the St. Louis area, nonprofit organizations work together to maximize representation, yet dozens of eligible asylum seekers are turned away every month. The need for high-quality asylum representation far exceeds the available resources.

Law clinics are an ideal setting to train new immigration lawyers. Upper-level law students work directly with clients on their immigration applications, learning firsthand how the law does – and does not – work.

In the Immigration Clinic, law students and I experience together the real-life successes and pitfalls of legal representation. As I work with law students to hone their lawyering skills, I’m acutely aware that I am training them for an extremely difficult job. It requires meticulous preparation, with often very high stakes. It means walking with clients through the highs and the lows. It means carrying stories of trauma and resilience, while relishing every success, big and small. In these challenging times, the big wins are few and far between. Often the chances of success seem nonexistent.

So why would I want to train law students 
to become immigration lawyers in today’s environment? I think about this often. And 
the answer is, we are needed! Our clients 
need us, and the nation needs our expertise and our voices.

The question then becomes how to teach immigration law and model lawyering in a time of crisis. That is a hard question, and I certainly do not have all the answers. I focus on several important skills: I strive to teach my students to be empathetic listeners who are guided by trauma-informed approaches to lawyering. I focus a lot of my teaching on the attorney-client relationship and the importance of centering the client in our work.

As difficult as it can be, we must always be honest with clients about their likelihood of winning and the consequences of being denied. This can be emotionally difficult. Therefore, 
I teach students that it is equally important 
to establish self-care routines early in their careers. That was not a skill I learned in law school, and I struggle to implement it myself. Being a role model for students gives me a renewed reason to try.

Ultimately, my goal as a clinical law professor is to encourage new lawyers to use their special training and skills to push back against the erosion of legal protections wherever they 
see them. I realize that not all of my students will become immigration attorneys. They 
may become judicial law clerks, litigators, transactional attorneys, corporate attorneys or business owners. My hope is that, whatever work they do, tomorrow’s lawyers are compassionate and more aware of the complexity and human consequences of our laws.

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