PITTSBURGH: The Importance of Cultural Competency in an Immigration Law Clinic

Martin Gutmann, Pitt Law '11, is a student in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law's new Immigration Law Clinic. He writes on the importance of cultural competency when working with clients...



The University of Pittsburgh recently took stock of its changing surroundings and started an Immigration Law Clinic. Pittsburgh, like much of the country, has been unaccustomed to significant non-European migration. For the past few decades, the vast majority of immigrants set up their new lives in established centers in California, New York and Texas. Recently, that trend has changed dramatically. Suburbs and cities with smaller minority populations are now seeing a considerable influx of new residents. Pittsburgh is no exception. However, many of our new neighbors stay in insular communities, so their presence can easily go unnoticed.

Slowly, this trend is changing as non-citizens realize there are places of assistance available. Some of this assistance concerns legal help, including interaction with US immigration laws. Assistance varies from petitioning the US Citizenship and Immigration Service for relatives' entry into the country to working with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the Department of Justice for the right to remain within these borders. These interactions with United States policy are far-ranging and carry significant implications, including separation from one's family or deportation to a land that one may never have known.

Despite the severity of such implications, the United States extends limited due process protections to immigrants in so-called "removal" proceedings. Immigration matters are treated as civil rather than criminal, although many non-citizens are initially placed in removal proceedings on relatively minor criminal grounds. Over the past few decades, Congress has broadened the criminal grounds for removal extensively from a few very narrow reasons to a dozen, which now initiate the vast majority of proceedings. For example, one may be removed from the country for an isolated non-violent crime committed 30 years ago as a minor. A formal conviction would not even be necessary.

The limits of due process protection also affect non-citizens by throwing them into highly adversarial proceedings without a lawyer or knowledge of their rights. Bond and representation can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Here is where the Immigration Law Clinic plays such a vital role: clinical students can help such people vindicate the limited rights they do possess.

The six students in the inaugural clinic class have been able to dive right into such representation. To be sure, representation is not limited to removal proceedings. In the short time since the clinic began, we have started "affirmative" asylum applications - that is, requests for asylum before one is placed in removal proceedings - as well as family-based petitions, waivers of inadmissibility due to hardship to American relatives, visas for those who have helped police investigations, and a myriad of other forms of relief, benefits, and immigration status changes. The procedures and processes change, but one thing remains constant: the need for cultural competency and sensitivity.

Cultural competency means being able to understand your client's worldview and the resulting values and goals, which often may be different from your own. As representatives, we must always work toward achieving our clients' ends, absent concerns of crime or fraud. Working for non-citizen clients in the immigration process adds additional dimensions to those aspirations. We must be aware of how the client views his situation and respect that he may choose to proceed differently than we would in similar circumstances. Because we each bring our background and experiences to bear in a given situation, each circumstance is different.

As an example of a cultural competency issue encountered by the clinic, we currently have clients from African countries with long histories of internal conflict and gender-based violence. Clinical students must be aware of that history when interviewing the client so as to not cause that client to relive potentially troubling memories. At the same time, one must know when that history could play a major role in allowing that person to remain in the country. For instance, a client's history may present the basis for a valid asylum claim. If so, the representative should know how to broach the subject and let the client tell the story. This can be difficult, as many clients are understandably reluctant to share such personal and painful stories with someone they may have just met. It may help to be familiar with the actors and issues involved. Cultural competency is often about self-education, and in some ways, it can be understood as an extension of the ethical duty to perform necessary study when undertaking representation.

Cultural competency issues often arise in the domestic violence context. US immigration law protects abused or battered individuals, either by regularizing their status or preventing their forced removal from the country. The clinic focuses on this area by providing female clients currently in abusive relationships with immigration help. Domestic abuse interviews are difficult in the best of circumstances, but are especially demanding in the context of interviewing married abused women who come from very male-dominated cultures. Often, such clients will view the abusive behavior as normal or even deserved. They will refuse to leave the husband, let alone involve an unfamiliar legal system.

Many of the above and similar questions are resolved by recognizing cultural relativism, i.e. understanding beliefs and activities from another person's cultural background. For the purpose of clinic students, this means reserving judgment, not dealing in absolutes, and explaining options in terms that the client can understand. It does not mean, however, that one cannot address harms that may befall a client who would prefer a particular course of action, such as staying with a spouse whose abuse has repeatedly put her in the hospital. Human rights should not be mechanically ignored in the name of cultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, lawyers can find little guidance in the statutory or decisional law to resolve these moral questions. Ultimately, as with all legal representation, the ends chosen must be the client's. Nevertheless, lawyers and law students can and should use their available tools to educate clients about all their options and repercussions.

That, to me, is what makes practicing immigration law so interesting and rewarding. It does not operate in a vacuum. The best immigration lawyers are educated both about the world around them and other areas of law. Moreover, they cannot be limited to legal recourses alone, but must be able to guide their clients to other social services if necessary. They need to be prepared for all possibilities, and thus need to be complete lawyers. At the University of Pittsburgh, the new immigration law clinic makes that happen.

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