Annie Lai on Translating Law on the Books to Law at Work in People’s Lives

Prof. Lai explains how the Immigrant Rights Clinic is transforming lives and teaching students the skills necessary for modern legal practice.

Read Transcript


  • Annie Lai

    Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director, Immigrant Rights Clinic
    Expertise: Immigration, workers' rights, discrimination law, criminal procedure, legislative advocacy
  • Jonathan Glater (Host)

    Assistant Professor of Law
    Expertise: Higher education law, criminal law, corporate law, white collar crime and securities fraud

Podcast Transcript

[Narrator] Welcome to UCI Law Talks, presenting bold perspectives on law from the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Join the conversation on Twitter @UCILaw, #UCILawTalks.

[JG] Welcome to UCI Law Talks. Today we're talking to Annie Lai. She's Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic here at UCI. Welcome Annie and thank you for joining us.

[AL] Thank you for having me.

[JG] First, I want to explore a little bit about the clinic. I know before I went to law school I didn't know what a clinic was. When I heard the word clinic I thought something medical. So if you could tell us a little bit about what our clinical program is and what it does.

[AL] Sure. So in legal education, the word clinic is used to refer to an intensive course that students can take for credit where instead of doing reading assignments, attending lecture, or taking an exam at the end of the semester, the focus is on developing student’s skills and critical reflection that's necessary for students to become excellent lawyers. Students often represent real clients – low income clients or clients who otherwise wouldn't have access to legal services – or they work on projects that have real world impact. And in this way, law schools that have clinical programs, they can train law students but at the same time provide a very valuable service to the communities in which they work or the world more generally.

[JG] So this is a pro bono, right? This is a project serving people who as you said wouldn't otherwise have access to legal services.

[AL] Absolutely. Law schools do not charge clients for the assistance they provide through their clinics.

[JG] And Immigrants Rights Clinic in particular?

[AL] So the Immigrant Rights Clinic at UC Irvine School of Law, the name probably provides a clue. We don't work on one kind of case, but we work on issues that are generally affecting low income immigrants in California and the region more broadly. And so, currently the clinic is working on a few related issues. One is the over criminalization of immigrants and under that umbrella we provide representation to immigrants who are detained in detention centers in the region who are facing deportation. We work on issues around local law enforcement collaboration with immigration officials and the distrust that sews between local law enforcement agencies and immigrant communities. Another big area where we're doing work is on the exploitation of the labor of immigrants. Because of their undocumented status, many immigrants are vulnerable in the workplace and they face issues such as wage theft, failure to be paid for overtime, failure to get their meal and rest breaks which are required by California law, and so we represent immigrants in those efforts as well. I want to note that some of the problems that we're seeing immigrants face arise from the unequal power relationship they have in workplaces and in other spaces as well as their relative lack of power in the political process. And so our students are partnering with immigrant advocacy organizations to work on things like community education and power building strategies and campaigns that immigrants are leading.

[JG] So it sounds like the students, not only are getting to go to court for example, if that's relevant to a particular client's problem, they're also involved in helping to try to shape policy, right, and advocacy kind of more broadly defined than folks might perhaps think at first.

[AL] Yes. That's absolutely right. Our clinic students do develop traditional legal skills such as client interviewing and counseling, which is really critical for being a lawyer, being able to analyze professional responsibility and ethical issues, fact investigation and going to court like you say examining witnesses and oral advocacy. But our students are also learning the skills necessary for modern legal practice which is more of a problem solving set of skills that includes understanding how policies are made, how laws are made, how do engage in the political process, how engage media actors and other stakeholders and build coalitions.

[JG] Can you say a little bit about what the goal is? I mean how will you know that the clinic has been successful, right? I mean if I'm the client, I know what outcome I want, but from your perspective as an educator.

[AL] Yes. So there's two parts to that question and one part is: have we been successful for our clients in the communities for which we work? And the issue of immigration is quite a controversial one. And I think that developments in immigrants’ rights have taken years if not decades. And so what we see as, you know, accomplishments really come down to whether we have helped to build power in immigrant communities and sometimes the effects of that we won't see for years to come. With regard to our students, we have certain skills that students are going to learn just by virtue of being in the clinic and representing clients. And we can see their accomplishments when they perhaps stand up in court and give an oral argument. But there are also less visible accomplishments and goals of the clinic and that is, as I referred to both before, the critical reflection skills that students develop in the clinic and will take into their practice. So for example, we can’t teach students – every student – how to master a deposition during the one semester that they are in the clinic. But, we can teach students what kinds of questions they might want to ask themselves in preparing for a deposition when they're no longer in the clinic, when they're in practice. We can also teach students how to think about planning for the litigation process and that's also a critical reflection skill as well as to see the role that they play as lawyers in clients' lives and in social structures more generally.

[JG] What's your role in this process because the students are the ones standing up in court, the students are the ones asking conducting the client interview?

[AL] Right. So the unique thing about clinics is that students are in the first chair role. So that's what distinguishes a clinic, law school clinic, from for example an internship at a local public interest organization or the Public Defender's Office. Students here are in the first chair role and so the students are the ones standing up in court, contacting the client, doing the work of the case. My co-director of the clinics, Sameer Ashar, who's also a clinical professor here, and I our main role is to provide guidance to the students, make sure that they have the tools they need to represent clients, and to accompany them on every step of the way so that students feel equipped and comfortable representing clients. In addition, Sameer and I also at the beginning of every semester, decide what cases and projects are going to go on to the docket for students to rank, you know, cases and projects they want to work on.

[JG] Are there particular challenges to supervising students in a clinic, helping run the clinic that are kind of unique?

[AL] So it's a little bit different from being a practicing attorney because my primary role is to support others in conducting the client representation. But I thoroughly enjoy it because I think students are capable of a lot. They constantly surprise me with how much they're capable of. The challenges are that the real world, the world of litigation, the world of political campaigns doesn't follow an academic schedule. And so when it comes around to November and December or April and it's time for the students to start preparing for their exams in other courses, we do need to plan for that a little bit and sometimes need to step-in in the summer. Sameer and I step in and handle cases as well 

[JG] So you get that the practitioner experience yourself over the course of the academic year or the calendar year I should say.

[AL] We do, we do.

[JG] So this sounds like a great experience. Can any student take a clinic?

[AL] So one of the unique things about UCI Law School is that we guarantee space for every student to take a clinic.

[JG] I want to ask you a little bit about clients of the clinic to the extent you can talk about it. What kinds of legal challenges are they facing? You've spoken a little bit about it in general terms. What can you say more about what are the problems that the clinic is trying to resolve.

[AL] Right so the clients that we represent really, although they are typically low income and otherwise wouldn’t have access to legal services and are immigrants, otherwise are quite diverse. Some of the clients we represent are lawful residents who are now facing deportation as a result of criminal conviction; sometimes a very minor criminal conviction will result in their facing deportation. Other clients we represent are breadwinners for their family and are working in a workplace that doesn't have great conditions but they have no choice but to work for that employer, and because of their undocumented status, they don't feel that they can just move to a different workplace. And so the challenges that they face are really quite diverse. The legal barriers they face to asserting rights often have to do with their non-citizen or undocumented status.

[JG] What are the kinds of solutions that you can negotiate? I imagine representing someone or advising someone who's undocumented poses special challenges.

[AL] Yes it does.

[JG] What are your options? What kinds of solutions can you try to achieve?

[AL] So one of the things that our students – the conversations our students often have with clients is informing clients of all of the rights they do have regardless of their immigration status. Many people don't know that and empowering our clients with information about their rights is critical. In addition, clients that we work with typically are affiliated with worker centers or other organizations that are providing services to a particular population and focused on either immigrants workers' issues or worker’s issues. And by joining with other workers or other immigrant workers, we've seen that our clients can build power despite their undocumented status. So imagine one worker at a workplace filing a complaint. What's going to happen in that situation, particularly if the person is undocumented? But imagine 10 or 15 workers filing a complaint at the same time with the help of a community organizer. That can make a big difference.

[JG] How surprised are your students to find that the scope of the practice of law encompasses that kind of work?

[AL] Well you know our students are also quite diverse. Some of them were organizers before they came to law school. And so, for those students, I don't think they're that surprised at all. In fact, they probably came to law school because they saw they were doing organizing work and they saw that there could be services offered by lawyers that could really help to advance the organizing. Others of our students have had experiences working in legal services organizations or in service capacity of some sort. And so, they see what a lawyer can contribute to a problem not just in court but in ways broader than that.

[JG] So you're talking a little bit about the ways in which law affects this broad idea of representation, right, of under-served clients. I haven't asked about the relationship between the doctrinal courses that students take property, criminal law, immigration law, and what they're doing in the clinic. Can you say a little bit about how those work together?

[AL] Yeah. So at UCI Law, many of our students will take the clinic for the first time in their second year of law school and that is that is the year when they're figuring out what other upper level courses they want to take. But by then, our students will have already taken all their first year courses. The real relationship between the doctrinal courses and the clinical courses is that our students get to see the relationship between law on the books and law in people's lives. Sometimes that is consistent but sometimes there's a big gap between what the law looks like on the books and how it operates in practice and I'll give you a couple of examples. One is that the issue of retaliation. So many students will learn if they take a labor law course or employment law course that retaliation in response to an employee engaging in organizing activities in the workplace is illegal. Retaliation in response to an employee filing a claim with the Department of Labor about a violation is illegal. In practice however, our students find that their clients don't want to file complaints because they fear retaliation and even though retaliation is illegal the reality is that if the employer terminates that employee then our clients are facing you know not being able to provide for their children. Now they may be able to demonstrate that the retaliation was illegal months down the road. But what will they do in the meantime? So that's a very concrete example of why sometimes our clients are still hesitant to file complaints or engage in organizing even though they know they have rights. Another example is the idea in criminal law that many students learn about a plea deal, that a plea is only taken and there are constitutional procedures in place to ensure that plea deals are knowing and voluntary and that the waiver of rights is knowing and voluntary. But when our students talk to our clients who have gone through the criminal justice system, they learn that there are many reasons why clients will take pleas and there are many circumstances in which clients take pleas and those are not knowing and voluntary pleas. And they will only learn much later that in fact, the plea that they took is going to subject them to deportation.

[JG] I imagine, well let me be careful and just ask, are there particular challenges to finding clients given that chunk of the clients of the clinic are undocumented?

[AL] We – the Immigrant’s Rights Clinic has actually had no problem finding enough clients to fill our docket. We often are in the position of needing to turn clients away unfortunately because deportation is considered civil as opposed to criminal that means one of the consequences is, that means that immigrants facing deportation do not have a guarantee to a lawyer. Many immigrants go through this process without legal assistance and so the clinic alone has – we cannot provide representation to all of the immigrants out there who need it and so we have to make some very difficult decisions about who we offer representation to.

[JG] And I want to ask about particular achievements of the clinic that you would like to flag for people, that the students have managed to – where they've overcome some of these obstacles.

[AL] There are many accomplishments and achievements that more than I can – there's time to tell but I'll just share a few. One of the really lovely moments in the clinic was in 2013 when our clinic students after it was several generations of clinics students over multiple semesters put together a report on something that was going on here in Orange County. The juvenile probation officers were referring young people who were in juvenile hall because they were facing delinquency charges to ICE for deportation. And 14 - 15 year old girls and boys.

[JG] You need to tell people what ICE is.

[AL] Okay. ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the agency charged with – is the law enforcement agency, one of that within the Department of Homeland Security charged with enforcement of the immigration laws. And so, when the probation officers were referring youth to ICE, what it meant was that the probation officers were referring these young people for deportation because of their undocumented status. And when we found out that Orange County Probation Department was engaged in this practice, the students under took legal research and conducted public records requests to gather data about the referrals. And they put together a lengthy report setting forth the policy and legal reasons why the probation department should not refer youth to ICE and should focus on their primary mission which is the rehabilitation of youth. When we finished drafting the report, we reached out to commute organizations in the area and the students organized a press conference in downtown Santa Ana where they spoke to the media and had our community partners speak to the media about the findings of their report. And as a result of that press conference, there was an increased level of awareness about the problem in Orange County and I'm happy to say today the Orange County Probation Department is referring very few youth to ICE for deportation.

[JG] That's quite an achievement for the students then in producing that report.

[AL] It was.

[JG] Are there any other particular event – achievements you'd like to describe?

[AL] Yes. So another big area of representation we're focused on right now in the clinic is providing, like I said, representation to immigrants who are detained in detention centers in the region. When one of the detention centers we're focused on is the Adelanto Detention Center which is located in San Bernardino County and it is about 90 miles outside of Los Angeles about 90 mile drive from here in Irvine and immigrants are detained there who are residents of both L.A. County and Orange County. They're facing deportation as a result of perhaps criminal convictions or just being referred to by law enforcement agencies to immigration. And our students have been providing representation to these detainees in bond hearings in order to argue that they should not continue to be detained and that they should be instead released so that they can be reunited with their families while they are fighting their deportation case. Many of our students have represented a client in bond proceedings and over the past two years I think we've represented approximately 20 to 25 detainees and that is a huge accomplishment. Of the detainees that we were able to get released, they have a much greater chance of fighting deportation because at home with their families working, they can earn money put together the necessary documentation maybe hire an immigration lawyer to represent them in their deportation case. In one particular case we represented – two of our students represented – a client who had been detained in the Adelanto Detention Center for two and a half years and this is following any sentence that he received for his criminal conviction. In this case, he was being deported because he had a criminal conviction. During the two and a half years the client spent a good portion of that time representing himself fighting his case all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was successful in getting the case remanded and then he was able to get a second immigration court hearing but that took a very long time and in this particular case, the client had the perseverance to keep going while he was detained. Our students came into the case quite late but the first thing we did was to represent this client in bond proceedings obtain a bond so that he could be released and now he's at home reunited with his family, still fighting his deportation case. Our two students were so inspired by the experience they had representing the client and obtaining bond for him that they offered to represent him in his deportation case. And so that's how we ended up with this client who I believe we’ll probably be representing until the very end of his case.

[JG] So this is an instance where one of the things the clinic is teaching is the rewards of the practice of law.

[AL] Absolutely; I think our students come through the clinic, they see that they can really make a difference in people's lives and some of our students actually leave the clinic changing their career goals. Some of them have decided to go into immigration practice, criminal defense practice, go on to work at public interest organizations or perhaps go on to work in government positions but with a changed perspective about the work they're doing. Another accomplishment we had recently was in a case that the clinic brought with other co-counsel, which co-counsel is other attorneys working with us on behalf of a community organization based in Phoenix, Arizona, which is a hotbed for immigrants’ rights activity. Together with a few individuals who are our clients as well, we brought this case against the Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff's Office as well as the Maricopa County Prosecutor's Office and the state of Arizona is also a defendant in this case. What was happening in Arizona, was that immigrant workers were being criminally prosecuted after being arrested in worksite raids that the sheriff's office was conducting. This was instilling great fear in the immigrant community and really having an impact on those workers willingness to assert their labor rights. And so our clinic jumped in, provided representation, and we filed a lawsuit in federal court. Last year in January of 2015, we obtained a preliminary injunction from the federal court and that case is now on appeal. Our students are continuing to work on the case at the district court level, which is the trial court level to conduct discovery and retain an expert in the case and prepare for depositions.

[JG] Annie, thank you so much for taking the time to describe this to us today.

[AL] It was a pleasure thank you.

[Narrator] Thank you for joining us for UCI Law Talks produced by the University of California Irvine, School of Law.