Chicago-Kent’s Immigration Clinic Tackles a Legal Field in Flux
This story appears in the Chicago-Kent College of Law's fall 2021 alumni magazine, which focuses on immigration law. You can read the entire magazine online.
To be an immigration attorney is to grow accustomed to change. At times, dramatic, radical change; at times slow, thousand-paper-cuts change. Every week, adding up to about 1,000 alterations to federal law over the past four years. And in a field renowned for its clogged court dockets, every change has an impact.
“I don’t know what it’s like to practice in an area that’s not constant chaos. It’s all I eat, sleep, and breathe,” says Victoria Carmona, head of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Immigration Law Clinic. “But it’s a controlled chaos. Sometimes it’s just trying to do the best you can. And with students, you can’t let them get completely overwhelmed.”
But she doesn’t let them stand aside either. Every semester, Carmona brings eight students into her clinic and gives them heavy responsibilities: from interviewing and prepping clients to occasionally arguing before a judge.
Though Carmona has only been heading the clinic since 2019, she’s already made a name for herself—even with students who had little initial interest in the field.
“She really puts her heart in this. That’s what really made me get engaged in immigration law; it’s really because of her and her dedication to it,” says Hussein Nofal ’22, who plans to pursue tax law but now says he’d like to do immigration work pro-bono.
Nofal excelled in Carmona’s clinic, earning the college’s Gary Laser Professionalism Award, which goes to the best student out of all 11 clinics housed under Chicago-Kent’s C-K Law Group.
“The clinic is the most important aspect of immigration education at the school. I asked Victoria one time, ‘How do you do this? How do you take all these cases and not get depressed, hearing all those—and they’re horrible cases, horrible things have happened,” says Enrique Espinoza ’21, who worked at the clinic last year, and this year received a national Peggy Browning Fund fellowship to work at the Chicago offices of the National Legal Advocacy Network.
“She said, ‘Enrique, take it one day at a time. There’s only so much that you can do, and you have to take a step back, take some free time, and keep going.’
“It’s not going to change, it is what it is. That’s the nature of these cases.”
The first case Carmona brought into the clinic was an unflinching example. Like half of the 150 or so cases her clinic now handles, it dealt with an asylum application.
A family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo had shown up at the United States’ southern border. They were a married couple with two kids; the husband had spoken out about the government.
“A lot of these cases, they don’t just go after you, they go after your whole family,” Carmona says.
The man was tortured in front of his family; the woman was raped.
“We’re dealing with so many other issues—focusing on health and something to eat—that the legal side comes last,” Carmona says.
Says Espinoza of the cases he handled, “There’s the human aspect and the legal aspect. I can’t detach one from the other.”
Dr. Nora Rowley is a board certified emergency medicine doctor with decades of experience who works with the clinic to conduct forensic evaluations of torture survivors. Even in egregious cases, she says, such trauma needs to be well-documented to be believed by the government. But it can wreak havoc on testimony.
“You can have the most vivid scarring, but if you get the wrong judge or government attorney and [the client] messes up and says one thing wrong one time, the assumption is they’re purposely lying and to never ever believe them,” says Rowley, who works out of the Heartland Alliance’s Marjorie Kovler Center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
Of Carmona, Rowley says, “She understands immigration law and the patterns that happen. And having a specialized clinic in an academic and teaching environment is really excellent.
“People go to law school with various goals in mind, and to have this exposure I hope will broaden their perspective, make them more compassionate, even if they’re not going to practice pro-bono work.”
“What I loved about it is the fact it’s connected to the law school,” agrees Angelica Barahona, who in 2019, when Carmona was first starting her clinic, was a case manager for World Relief Chicago.
Carmona approached several nonprofit advocacy organizations who needed help with their immigrant clients. World Relief was one of them.
“Wow. This is an answer to our prayers,” Barahona remembers thinking. “You’ll know that whoever is filling out [immigration documents] knows what’s expected of them. That’s not always the case; sometimes it’s an attorney who’s been through some training video.
“Chicago-Kent students don’t just do the minimum, they really make sure they understand what’s going on. That is not common.”
Back in 2019 it was Chicago-Kent students, more than anyone, who advocated for an immigration clinic, remembers then-Clinical Education Director Richard Gonzalez.
“They even did a petition a couple years back. They were upset. I think it was mostly because immigration is just so darned important lately,” Gonzalez says.
Chicago-Kent’s in-house firm, C-K Law Group, had attempted to get such a clinic going twice before, but they’d only lasted a couple years. Gonzalez wanted one that would last.
Carmona had just been offered a partnership at one of Chicago’s largest immigration firms, Robert D. Ahlgren and Associates, where she had worked for five years.
But the chance to run her own clinic appealed greatly to her.
“I started out the first weeks saying, ‘Oh, God, hope this works!’ I had a few clients that ultimately followed,” she says.
“How do I get clients?” Carmona offers a rueful chuckle. “So many nonprofits that do pro-bono cases are just overwhelmed. We’ve been so busy because there’s such a demand for immigration lawyers.”
Carmona voices a common lament you’ll hear from most immigration attorneys: there’s not enough of them. Especially for asylum cases, whose clients typically don’t have a ton of money.
Since 2015 the number of cases pending in immigration court has skyrocketed from 400,000 to 1.2 million.
Part of the problem, Carmona says, is all that chaos. Over the past four years, there was so much of it, it had to be willful, she believes. And government prosecutors were not allowed to exercise discretion: rather than focus on egregious violations, all cases had to be tackled equally.
“We have a single mother with no criminal history, who has a U.S. citizen child with cerebral palsy. What is the purpose of focusing on her? This child’s going to end up in state custody, which—aside from the obvious humanitarian harm and lasting trauma a separation from a child and mother would cause—would end up financially costing the government even more,” Carmona says.
“It’s become so much more political than it needs to be,” Carmona says. “[The Trump administration] would just try to cut corners everywhere, making changes without notice or comment. And you have to understand, we’re dealing with numerous agencies: the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigration court systems….So if there’s a change it’s not just one change, it’s a change that ping-pongs and affects others.”
But helping students navigate all that “controlled chaos” is something she says she’ll always strive to do.
“The best way to learn law is to have someone there for you, to lead you through it. The law is a living, breathing thing. and it takes experience to understand. That’s what I’ll always be here for,” Carmona says. “I want to make sure the next generation is here to continue this work.”
Photo: Victoria Carmona [left], head of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Immigration Law Clinic, with a student