IIT Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Ana Mendez Mencini (LAW ’01) says her students learn early on how high the stakes can be for their clients.
Such was the firsthand experience of one IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law student who worked with Mencini on an asylum case involving a human-rights activist from Africa. The activist had been the victim of a brutal sexual assault in her country because of her work on behalf of women and children there. When the client jeopardized her request for asylum in the United States after missing a filing deadline, Mencini and the student argued that the client’s post-traumatic stress syndrome prevented her from meeting the deadline.
“Not only did we win on overcoming the one-year filing deadline,” Mencini says, “we also won asylum for the client, who is slated to become a U.S. resident later this year.”
That case was just one of many that allows students to work alongside Mencini on real immigration cases at Chicago-Kent’s Immigration Clinic, which Mencini directs. Her clients may need help securing visas, going through the naturalization process, or dealing with more-urgent matters, such as asylum requests.
As part of the Law Offices of Chicago-Kent, the Immigration Clinic operates on a fee-based system, which teaches students how to help clients while also running a successful business.
Mencini says entrepreneurship can be a challenge for some immigration attorneys, who typically work with underserved immigrants with limited resources. She says, “You are sort of balancing your desire to help the immigrant community along with the fact that you have to put food on your own table as well.”
Mencini emphasizes that the Immigration Clinic is an actual working law office, where students get real-life experience meeting with clients, attending court sessions and hearings, and following cases from start to finish.
Her students must learn to juggle several cases in various stages as they would in their own practice. “At some pro bono clinics, they can spend an entire semester on an asylum case,” she says. “Whereas an asylum case here is just one of the 200 open files I have at any given time.”
If major national immigration-reform legislation does get passed, Mencini says the need for competent immigration attorneys will further increase.
“Really seasoned immigration lawyers are few and far between,” she says. Mencini fears a rush of inexperienced lawyers hoping to cash in on immigration reform could be disastrous for those needing assistance.
“You can’t unring the bell on immigration,” she says. “I’ve had clients come in who were given the wrong advice and it has literally cost them the ability to get an immigration benefit in the U.S.”
Mencini’s connection to her own heritage drives her work in helping immigrant communities. Her father was an immigrant from Colombia who became a naturalized citizen, and she still vividly recalls some of her earliest work as an immigration lawyer helping other Colombians persecuted by terrorist FARC rebels seek asylum in the United States. She says the experience was humbling and she was grateful to be able to give back to the Colombian community.
She says, “I love being an American and helping others become an American.”
Immigration Clinic, Chicago-Kent Law Offices: