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1L Advice: How I got the Fellowship

March 27, 2018

When Victor Cheng ’18 was an undergraduate, he studied marketing and international business, inspired by his Chinese immigrant father’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive. A few short years later and everything had changed; Victor came to CUNY Law to alter the face of Immigration Law as we know it. Below, he shares how his singular focus drove his work in our Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic and why he feels fortunate to carry the work into his Fellowship.

 

Something is wrong when a nation denies its long history of immigrants – immigrants who built our infrastructure, evolved our culture, and created irreplaceable art. At the same time, something is right when a nation is moved to collective action to provide high-quality legal assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship, fighting deportation, advocating for DREAMers, and working hard to ensure families can remain intact and be part of our nation’s future. These are the time we live in: a country founded by immigrants struggling to escape a narrative of good immigrants vs. bad immigrants (not to mention struggling with the recognition that those founders might be the latter).

Not long ago I accepted that my purpose in life is to help immigrants – and help reframe the narrative that stands to cripple our country. Though I spent my undergraduate years focused on marketing and international business, thanks in no small part to my Chinese immigrant father’s entrepreneurial spirit, the childhood fear that my father could be separated from me had lasting impact. I set my sights on an opportunity: the Immigrant Justice Corp (IJC) Fellowship, the nation’s first and only immigration legal fellowship program that seeks to expand access to counsel by increasing the quantity of immigration laws and the quality of the immigration bar. And then I set about building the knowledge, skills, and experience to get me there.

I sought to attend CUNY School of Law not only because of its focus on public interest lawyering, but also because of the school’s INCR Clinic, a clinic devoted to giving students hands-on, real-time experience in immigration law. Though I didn’t gain admission with my first application, I participated in CUNY Law’s Pipeline to Justice program, an initiative focused on helping under-represented minorities bolster their applications and LSAT scores to both level the admissions playing field and advance the diversity of the legal profession. When I went through the admissions cycle with a new, higher LSAT score I got multiple invitations to apply from several high-ranking institutions – but my time with Pipeline had confirmed CUNY Law was the right place for me. While at first I was frustrated that I had to wait to begin school, now I feel that the current anti-immigrant climate and new policies under the current administration have created a unique opportunity to analyze the current roadblocks with my clinic professors and peers and to come up with solutions.

Once in law school, despite my exposure to many other forms of advocacy work, I stuck to my goal of becoming an immigration attorney and sought every opportunity to learn and work on immigration issues before my clinic experience. In my second semester, I requested Nermeen Arastu to be my academic advisor because she leads the INCR Clinic. I expressed to her my interest in becoming an immigration attorney and she responded by mentoring me throughout my time at CUNY Law. In my non-immigration classes, I found every opportunity to write on immigration issues so I could research and learn more about immigration law.  To become more well-rounded in immigration law, I sought different internships, starting in my first-year summer internship at Lutheran of New York doing deportation defense work. During the spring of my second year, I interned at the Immigration Court – Executive Office for Immigration Review and then during the summer I interned at the New York Immigration Coalition, which is New York’s leading immigrant advocacy organization. I worked on headline issues such as the Muslim Ban at JFK, ICE arrests at New York courthouses, and Trump’s pursuit of transnational gangs in immigrant communities on Long Island in New York. To learn and collaborate with a diversity of advocates on pressing immigration issues, I joined and became active in the New York City Bar’s Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, too.

When time came to choose a clinic, I made the INCR Clinic my first choice and thankfully was accepted. By 2017, the INCR Clinic was fighting the Trump administration’s full-on attack on immigration. From the Muslim Ban to the refusal to extend DACA, as well as the use of gang allegations against immigrant communities and plans to build the border wall, the war on immigration confirmed my purpose to help immigrants. I was in the right place to analyze the policies and tactics of the Trump administration and come up with solutions that can immediately be put into practice.

My clinical experience has prepared me to be a better immigration attorney in the future. The clinic is taught by leaders in the immigration advocacy realm, including Talia Peleg from Brooklyn Defenders Services’ New York Immigrant Family Unity Project Team, Mark Doss of the International Refugee Assistance Project, and Nermeen Arastu a former staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that to be an attorney, I need to step out of my prior roles as an intern handling specific tasks and begin to see things from a lawyer’s perspective – that is, learn to be responsible for bringing everything together. In addition to the technical skills of immigration lawyering, my clinical experience has informed my approach to race, privilege, and other systems of oppressions in the legal system we operate in. This real work experience has prepared me to avoid perpetuating or exploiting the narrative of the “good vs. bad immigrant.”

For my work in the clinic, I elected a docket that involved defending people with past convictions because they have become the first targeted for removal by the administration. I see these clients as especially deserving of help because they are often black and brown people who have been swept up in the criminal justice system due to racial profiling and Broken Window Policing. Because they have served sentences they are exposed to an even harsher punishment: banishment.

I am thankful that in my first case, I worked on a team that succeeded in persuading the judge to allow a green card holder who had lived in the United States for nearly three decades (since the age of seven!) to be allowed to stay . I helped the judge find an overwhelming number of positive factors in the person’s life that outweighed his past conviction. My first success saved a family from being torn apart.

As I look ahead to starting as an IJC fellow, I am thankful CUNY Law, the INCR Clinic, and my peers have prepared me to enter into a fight that shows no signs of stopping. Looking back at my time here, I’m proud to be able to say I achieved my goal of being awarded an IJC Fellowship – and I’m also proud to have learned alongside so many others who have held onto their drive to become the kind of lawyer that can change everything for one person, one family, one nation.

 

 

 

 

Related Categories: Clinic News, INRC, Spotlight

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