A new monthly immigration law clinic that is free to the public has just launched in Chamblee thanks to a partnership between Emory University School of Law and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with a big assist from the law firm Kuck Baxter Immigration Partners.
The Mormon Church already operates six such clinics in cities in Utah and Arizona. This is its first on the East Coast.
The biggest obstacle for recent immigrants and others with immigration questions, said one of the clinic’s organizers, Jorge Gavilanes of Kuck Baxter, is they often don’t know where to start.
“It can seem intimidating to go to a law firm, or they may not be able to afford legal fees,” he said.
The immigrant community can also be preyed upon by unscrupulous purveyors of legal advice, Gavilanes said. “We want a place that offers reliable legal advice,” he said.
The law students perform intake and then route advice-seekers to volunteer lawyers for on-the-spot consultations about their immigration questions. The lawyers route more-complex cases to local firms or nonprofits.
The first Immigrant Services Initiative clinic attracted about 30 advice-seekers for its initial meeting at La Mansion Events Hall in Chamblee on Aug. 8, said Rita Sheffey, assistant dean of public service for Emory Law, who is leading the school’s effort.
Along with Sheffey and Keeley Youngblood from Emory Law’s Volunteer Clinic for Veterans, seven law students and three lawyers participated.
“We were thrilled with that. We didn’t know what to expect,” Sheffey said, adding that the first clinic was a soft launch and the organizers will ramp up to promote it more widely in the community. “We’re starting slow to make sure we’re doing a quality job.”
The church partners with a local law school and firm to run the clinics, Gavilanes said. It contacted his firm’s managing partner, well-known immigration practitioner Charles Kuck, about launching one in Atlanta.
Atlanta made sense, because there is a large Mormon population here as well as a big need for immigrant legal services, said Gavilanes, who is Mormon, as are his firm’s name partners.
Gavilanes will do a training with the student volunteers before each clinic on how to interview people and assess their legal issues. “Many have undergone traumatic experiences, and it can be difficult to pinpoint and extract the key legal issues from their stories,” he said, adding that the clinic provides the law students a questionnaire as a guide.
After the two-hour walk-in clinic concludes, Gavilanes will hold a debriefing so the group can talk about issues that came up, the types of cases they’re seeing and ways to improve the process.
“This is a model that has been put in practice by the church in other states,” he said, adding that the Mesa, Arizona, clinic sees about 100 people a month in partnership with Arizona State University.
“It benefits the immigrant community and gives students an opportunity to develop client interview skills and learn about immigration law,” Gavilanes said.
Sheffey said starting an immigration legal clinic has been a popular request from Emory Law students.
Many volunteer with legal nonprofits serving immigrants such Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, Kids in Need of Defense, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Tahirih Justice Center and Catholic Charities, Sheffey said, but she was looking for a way for Emory Law to do something more comprehensive.
“We have substantial needs here, and the Atlanta Immigration Court is not so favorable to immigrants,” Sheffey said, so she was very receptive when Kuck, who also is an adjunct professor at Emory Law, came to her with the possibility of co-sponsoring the clinic with the church.
Once the legal clinic is established, the church hopes to add family law advice and a “welcome center,” as it has done at immigration clinic locations in Utah and Arizona, Gavilanes said. The center is a place where people can learn English, make contacts in the community, ask about day-to-day concerns and learn how to navigate the U.S. system.
The legal clinic will be held the second Wednesday of every month from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at La Mansion Events Hall at 5522 New Peachtree Road in Chamblee. No appointment is necessary.
For more information, contact immigrantservices.lds.org or call 801-240-1442.