Playing an active role in supporting undocumented immigrants
In only her third year of law school, Erika Patty Munoz ’21 has already changed the lives of many clients in the Sacramento area. Through University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law Immigration Clinic, she has helped numerous undocumented immigrants with legal proceedings to reunite them with their families and also help them stay in America legally.
"At the Immigration Clinic we are able to do community-based work and help change people's lives every day," said Munoz. "It is rewarding to be able to give people hope and help them one day not live their lives in fear of being taken from their homes."
For Munoz, immigration law is close to her heart. She has seen first-hand the challenges and fears that undocumented immigrants struggle with as family and friends have encountered immigration issues.
"Working in immigration law is a personal choice for me and it is part of the reason I came to McGeorge," explained Munoz.
Located in the heart of California, McGeorge's Immigration Law Clinic is in a unique position to serve the state's large community of undocumented immigrants. Faculty and law students provide in-depth legal assistance on immigration matters to clients including naturalizations, support for victims of crime visas, asylum seekers, special immigrant juvenile petitions, as well as providing representation before the Immigration Court in removal proceedings.
However, recently the clinic has also supported undocumented individuals and families seeking legal assistance to apply for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order to support of DACA and to take all necessary and appropriate actions to preserve and fortify it after the Trump administration stopped allowing initial DACA applications in 2017.
Currently, DACA does not provide a pathway to permanent resident status, but it does provide approved applicants with work permits and protection against removal proceedings in two-year increments. Applicants must establish that they came to the United States before age 16, are currently in school or graduated from high school or honorably served in the military, have resided in the United States since 2007 and have passed a rigorous background check.
"DACA has been a successful program for the recipients and the U.S.," explained Blake Nordahl, McGeorge professor and Immigration Clinic supervising attorney. "Research has shown DACA recipients have lower teen birth rates, increased high school graduation rates, and an increase in college enrollment rates compared to other undocumented youth. In California, DACA recipients on average came to the U.S. at age seven. Most only know the United States as their home."
Currently, there are approximately 650,000 individuals who have DACA status in the United States and the Migration Policy Institute reports that there are almost that same number of individuals who qualify for DACA, but who do not have DACA status. Many of the people being helped at McGeorge's Immigration Clinic fall into this category.
"This is why our work is so important, we get to make a real impact in these are people's lives," said Munoz. "Many of our clients just want to stay in the U.S., the place they have lived most of their lives."
Munoz and her fellow students support clients on all phases of cases from the initial consultation to preparing the closing letters. Clinic students interview and counsel clients, as well as prepare declarations, legal briefs and supporting exhibits in their representation of clients before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Students also represent clients in adversarial hearings before the Immigration Court.
"Our goal is to transform our students into skilled practitioners ready for successful careers," said Kishwer Vikaas, staff attorney at the Immigration Clinic. "We are able to prepare them for a professional setting and show them how to develop client rapport. Many of our students have found the clinic experience to be helpful and many of the immigration lawyers in the Sacramento area are alums of McGeorge."
Munoz credits her work at the Immigration Clinic for giving her the confidence to be an attorney,
"I initially felt like I didn't belong when I started law school," explained Munoz. "But, when I started working at the Immigration Clinic, I felt empowered. You are responsible for your cases with guidance from professors, but it is ultimately your case. I've learned a lot by managing cases and feel like I've been given the blueprint for the process."
Following graduation, Munoz plans to devote her legal career to immigration law and hopes to provide support undocumented immigrants.
"I want to support people and help change their lives for the better," said Munoz.