Practicing Immigration Law in Connecticut

January 29, 2008

S.M., 3L

There’s no other place in the U.S. to practice immigration law quite like the state of Connecticut. This surprised the heck out of me when I first got to Yale – I really thought that as a student interested in learning and clinically practicing immigration law I’d basically be on the Metro-North train to New York City all the time. I figured, at the most, I’d get to see a few labor trafficking cases for the live-in maids and nannies at the Gold Coast mansions in Greenwich and Westport.

Boy was I wrong. Connecticut currently has a foreign-born population of one in nine, and this ratio is growing. Moreover, people come to Connecticut from all over the world, not just one particular region. I work mostly in Fair Haven, which has the largest Latino community in New Haven. What I like about it is that no one national group predominates: there are Mexicans, Central Americans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and even a few Argentines and Chileans. And they’re all mixed in together, not segregated by neighborhood, so the community organizations in Fair Haven (like Unidad Latina en Acción, or Junta for Progressive Action, both of which I represent in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security through my involvement in a clinic here) are very multinational. Also, there’s a growing French-speaking West African population in the area as well, comprised of: Guinea, Togo, Chad, Ivory Coast, and a few other countries.

In addition, practicing immigration law in Connecticut is interesting because we have only one Immigration Judge in the whole state, IJ Michael Straus. I don’t know if Judge Straus considers himself lucky or unlucky to preside over the jurisdiction that includes the Yale clinics, because we’re always making him deal with new and innovative legal arguments that haven’t been tested before, and we’re always burying him in paper (I’ve submitted briefs and evidence packets that are over 6” thick with paper). But with only one judge, four government prosecutors (ICE District Counsel) and a private bar of ten or twelve people, it’s got the feel of a small-town court: after a few appearances, all of the players recognize you and greet you. A few weeks ago, I was back at a Master Calendar hearing and IJ Straus asked, “Haven’t you graduated yet? You’ve been coming to this court for years!” (“Almost, your honor,” was the only appropriate answer to this question. But I wanted to say, “Yes, your honor, that’s because I was a 1L when I first appeared in front of you; in case you didn’t notice, I was shaking like a leaf.”). We're also lucky because IJ Straus is a very thoughtful judge who really works hard to get it right (unfortunately, we can't say that about all of the IJs in the country) - he always takes the time to read our briefs and grapple with the arguments, which is reflected in his thoughtful questions at oral argument.

Finally, practicing immigration law in Connecticut is fascinating because of the contrast in approaches on state and local issues. The Mayor of New Haven, John DeStefano, has been a national leader in the immigrants’ rights movement; an hour’s drive up the river, the Mayor of Danbury, Mark Boughton, has been a national leader in the anti-immigrant movement. So we’ve worked closely with the DeStefano administration to prepare what we call “immigrant integrationist” municipal policies, like a first-in-the-nation municipal ID card available to everyone, regardless of their immigration status, who lives in the city of New Haven. (San Francisco recently copied us.)

As to Mayor Boughton: well, if you can’t work with ‘em, you gotta sue ‘em, and that’s what we’ve done. To combat his policies, we have brought a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit on behalf of nine day laborers who were wrongfully arrested by local Danbury police, illegally playing the role of the federal immigration authorities.

To learn a bit more about the immigration work I’m talking about, see