Jennifer Gordon, Gemma Solimene, and Dora Galacatos help illuminate a path for immigrants.
The election of Donald Trump in November, following his campaign threats to crack down on noncitizens and build a vast wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, sent shudders of fear and uncertainty through New York City’s large immigrant population. The anxiety only intensified when, in January, President Trump temporarily barred the entry of most travelers and refugees from seven countries. Fordham Law, with a history of dedication to helping newly arrived residents that long predated the new president, mounted a swift and practical response: offering vital advice on legal rights to vulnerable New York City high school students and their parents. Jennifer Gordon, Gemma Solimene, and Dora Galacatos help illuminate a path for immigrants.
Fordham Law was well-equipped to act fast because it already had a robust array of programs in support of immigrant rights—courses and community initiatives that advance the School’s social justice ethos and that offer multiple opportunities to students for academic training, hands-on client representation, and high-impact policy research. This broad involvement in immigrant rights has been nurtured, in particular, by three Law School leaders who approach the issue from distinct vantage points. Professor Jennifer Gordon is a nationally known scholar on immigration and labor law, with a long history of community organizing. Clinical Associate Professor Gemma Solimene directs the Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, guiding students as they represent people struggling to gain legal resident status or avoid deportation. Dora Galacatos serves as the executive director of the School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, which has produced influential reports on the needs of immigrant children and families and recently arranged for student and alumni volunteers to counsel detained families on the southern border.
Acting individually and in concert, these three women are effecting change in at-risk communities as they simultaneously provide Fordham Law students with rich opportunities to bring their legal education to bear on a pressing social challenge. Students can wrestle with legal intricacies in Gordon’s immigration law class. They can take on a real and complex immigration case for credit and learn the intangible human challenges of lawyering in Solimene’s law clinic. Through the Feerick Center, they can engage in cutting-edge policy analysis or, as more than two dozen have done this year, jump into a legal hothouse in weeklong volunteer stints, advising detained mothers with children at a federal detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
“It’s one thing for a school to have an academic focus on immigration, but it’s another to have a group of people who work on the problem from different angles,” said Gordon. “Students have the opportunity to learn about the problems, intervene in them, and reflect on what they are doing. You get a synergy that lifts the work to a whole other level.”
These intersecting strengths came into play as faculty and students responded to the election of Trump and his closed-borders agenda. New York City school officials reported a surge in anxiety among immigrant students; if they were not living in the legal shadows themselves, many worried that a parent could be picked up at any time.
Gordon and Solimene saw a desperate need in the community for basic legal information. Soon after the election, the two professors approached Nisha Agarwal, the commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, to propose a collaboration. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs agreed to partner with Fordham Law. Gordon and Solimene would train Fordham Law students to do “know-your-rights” workshops for immigrant students and their parents at city high schools. The Mayor’s Office would arrange the workshops and follow up with free legal clinics at the schools. The Fordham Law Immigrant Preparedness Project (FLIPP) was born.
Over winter break, the professors themselves conducted a dozen trial workshops at city high schools. In these seminars, offered to groups of high school students, parents, and staff, they described current immigration rules and categories, immigrant legal rights, and ways to access free legal aid offered by New York City. When Fordham Law reconvened for the spring semester, Gordon and Solimene hired Anne Doyle, an experienced attorney and clinician, to coordinate FLIPP and supervise students giving workshops. They began training Law School students to lead the sessions on their own. More than 40 Fordham Law students showed up for the initial lunchtime training session in January, twice the crowd that the professors expected. Ultimately, 69 students signed up to venture into city schools. Gordon and Solimene demonstrated role-playing skits for use in the sessions, designed to guide immigrants if, for example, they are stopped in the street or get a dreaded knock on the door. (Among the messages: You have a right to stay silent and ask to speak to a parent or a lawyer, you should ask to see a search warrant, and you should make contact with a lawyer now, before the worst happens.)
“There’s so much misinformation out there, and fear based on uncertainty,” said Frank Kearl ’18, one of the student volunteers. “We can let people know that they have a baseline of constitutional rights and that there are avenues to find out that information.”
Kearl is one of many students who are working for immigration rights in multiple ways, either in anticipation of a public-interest career, as he is, or as a pro-bono sideline. He took Gordon’s law class last fall, which he called an “amazing” introduction to the complexities of immigration law and practice. He is also active in the student-led Immigration Advocacy Project and has traveled to the federal detention center in Dilley, Texas, to provide legal assistance to the mothers detained there. (As Galacatos put it, she, Gordon, and Solimene “often end up working with the same bright students.”)
Andrea Rodriguez ’18, who enrolled in Solimene’s clinic in the fall, became so invested in a client and her plight that she and her student partner, Alex Rosen ’17, signed up to repeat the clinic this semester as well, to see the case through if possible.
“As a second-year student I’m already doing immigration work with my own client on a personal level,” she said. “It’s much more experience than I ever thought I’d get as a student.”
Rodriguez also spent the first week of January counseling detained mothers in Texas. “It was amazing, tiring, and exhausting, but I’ll never forget the work I did there,” she said.
Certain Genius for Worker Advocacy
An anchor of these varied programs, in a sense, is Gordon and her foundational course in immigration law. Since she joined the Fordham Law faculty in 2003, Gordon has won acclaim for her scholarship and policy proposals that lie at the intersection of international migration and labor law. But her quick advocacy action this year to help organize the high school workshops was something of second nature: Before her entrée to academia, she spent much of her life as a community organizer, often of exploited migrant laborers.
While in college, at Harvard, Gordon helped Central American refugees in the Boston area pursue asylum claims. Then, before she even graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992, she began raising funds to found The Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island, where the rights of large numbers of immigrant day laborers, domestic workers, and others, mainly from El Salvador, were being trampled. The project earned national recognition for its successful efforts to advocate for and organize the laborers, found cooperatively owned businesses, and win a strong wage-enforcement law in New York state. In 1999, just after stepping down as the project director, Gordon won a coveted MacArthur Genius Grant for her pioneering work.
With the MacArthur Fellowship, Gordon concentrated on writing a book, Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights, which challenges widely held beliefs about immigrant workers, labor unions, and legal strategies. When Harvard University Press accepted the book for publication in 2003, Gordon—after four years primarily spent writing—had to figure out what to do next.
“Teaching seemed like the best bet, though I didn’t want to give up hands-on work with immigrant workers,” she says.
As she was finishing the book, she joined the faculty at Fordham. “It turned out that I just love the actual teaching part,” she said. “Once I got in front of a large class, I discovered the ham I am.”
Gordon promptly made a mark as a legal scholar on international labor migration. In a flurry of law-journal articles and op-ed pieces, she addressed a central challenge: the often leveled criticism that migrants, accepting scanty pay and exploitive conditions, will undercut the wages and job opportunities for low-wage native workers in receiving countries like the United States.
Gordon’s proposed solution was what she called “transnational labor citizenship.” In this system, migrants would be allowed to move freely among countries if they joined a network of worker organizations that upheld minimum workplace standards for all workers, and agreed to report employers who violated labor laws.
The idea garnered praise from The New York Times, among other media outlets, and some of her thinking about expanded legal programs for immigrant workers, combined with broader enforcement of labor standards, was reflected in earlier congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.
Recently, she has turned her sights on labor abuses that have accompanied globalization and the expanded role of subcontractors in procuring migrant workers. Would-be migrants sometimes pay extortionate fees, she notes, and are so vulnerable in their guest-worker status that they are afraid to complain about abuses.
In a 2015 report for the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, “Global Labour Recruitment in a Supply Chain Context,” Gordon proposes that the more visible actors at each end of the international employment chain—home-country governments and the receiving-country corporations and agribusinesses that benefit from the labor—should be held accountable for labor standards at every stage. She is now developing a pilot project that would test this approach in U.S. guest-worker programs for Mexicans.
All the while, of course, Gordon has been teaching classes and advanced seminars in immigration law, labor law, and regulation. She was named Teacher of the Year in 2008 and Public Interest Professor of the Year in 2011.
The November election results drew her back into community work.
“The day after the election I felt we were entering a period of terrible limbo,” she said, with immigrant children and their families sure to be tormented by new uncertainties. It was only natural for Gordon to team up with Solimene, whom Gordon called “a tremendous resource” because of her deep experience aiding immigrants in New York City.
One Client at a Time
A New York native and a graduate of NYU Law, Solimene could hardly be better prepared to teach an immigrant rights clinic in New York City, with its immigrant population of more than 3 million. Before her teaching career, she clerked at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and was a staff attorney of the New York City’s Legal Aid Society, where she worked on housing and immigration cases. She taught in the clinical program at NYU Law, and in the three years before she joined the Fordham faculty in 1999, she returned to the Legal Aid Society, where she served as the attorney-in-charge of the society’s citywide immigration law unit.
For students, Solimene says, the Immigrant Rights Clinic is “a way to learn the law and to provide service” in experiential learning.
Most students take the course for one semester, working in pairs as they develop arguments and evidence and represent clients in immigration court and before the immigration agency. The clients may be seeking legal residency based on familial relationships and hardship or other grounds, trying to avoid deportation based on a minor brush with the law, or seeking asylum based on fear of persecution. Not a few cases involve battered spouses, or abused or abandoned children who seek legal status based on special criteria in the law.
In weekly team meetings and group seminars, clinical students study the legal issues in their cases, the art of developing a case theory, and any ethical issues that arise. They also discuss more subjective issues like the emotional minefield of client relations.
Whatever their other obligations, clinical students are expected to spend a minimum of 12 to 15 hours per week directly on their cases. “You learn how to manage your time,” Solimene said, to balance personal life and other duties with the core obligation “to zealously advocate for the client.”
Alex Rosen, the student who is teamed up with Andrea Rodriguez, said that while he expects to pursue a career in corporate litigation, he sought out the clinic for the unusual opportunity to develop a close lawyer-client relationship.
“In this political climate, I wanted to make a contribution in this field,” he added.
Their client has a typically complex case. She is a Dominican woman who married an American citizen and was granted conditional legal residency, requiring a joint application with her husband to remove the condition. Her husband abused her and they have split up, so she requires a waiver of the joint petition requirement; now she hopes to avoid deportation and gain permanent residency for herself and her young children.
To do that she must show not only that the marriage was legitimate (i.e., not an immigration subterfuge) but also that she was the victim of violence or extreme cruelty and that deportation would impose extreme hardship. She has elementary-school-age children from a prior relationship, and the case requires a professional evaluation—an effort aided by a third member of the legal team, a social work student from Columbia University.
One invaluable benefit of the clinical course, Rosen said, was learning to deal with a client in distress.
“It’s like learning to develop a bedside manner, not something I’d ever thought about before,” he said. “She and her family ask, ‘What is going to happen?’”
Solimene said that in her more than 15 years with the Immigrant Rights Clinic, Fordham Law students have lost only two cases. “We’ve had great success,” she said. “I’m proud of the service we’ve provided and the learning the students have engaged in while providing the service.”
Families in Need
The Feerick Center occupies a different corner of the Fordham ecosystem, working with community groups, government agencies, and the courts to develop solutions to pressing problems as it carries out what Galacatos calls its primary mission: “engaging students and alumni around social justice issues.”
The center was established in 2006 and named in honor of John D. Feerick ’61, who as dean of the Law School from 1982 to 2002, and as a professor since, has been a champion of the poor and underrepresented. The center’s studies, conferences, and volunteer service projects are focused on urban poverty and New York City.
Galacatos, the executive director since 2013, is a 1996 graduate of Fordham Law and has a history of involvement with New York City justice issues. She has twice clerked for district judges in the Southern District of New York. At different points she worked for the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice and in the Mayor’s Office of Drug Abuse Policy and was staff director of a city master panel on family homelessness.
Among other recognitions, Galacatos was honored in 2013 by MFY Legal Services Inc. with its Partner in Justice award, and two years before that, Manhattan Legal Services bestowed on her its medal of honor.
While Galacatos’ main personal focus has been on consumer protection, she has helped the center develop a major program related to immigrant rights, particularly as New York City experienced an explosion in numbers of unaccompanied immigrant youths and in families fleeing violence in Central America.
In a prescient step in 2012—well before a massive 2014 surge in children crossing the southern border that burst onto news pages—the Feerick Center helped convene an array of private and governmental agencies to consider the dire social and legal needs of unaccompanied minors, large numbers of whom were temporarily released to the care of relatives in New York.
Together with the Vera Institute of Justice and other community partners, the Feerick Center carried out a study that identified the obstacles such youths faced in obtaining education, jobs, and legal help. It also established a Family Court Working Group to study solutions.
In a tangible measure of success, the New York state court system in 2015 accepted one of that group’s key recommendations: that the family courts should establish an advisory council, including grassroots legal aid and service agencies, on the special problems of immigrants. Bree Bernwanger, who heads the Feerick Center’s Unaccompanied Immigrant Children and Immigrant Families Project, sits on that advisory group.
The Feerick Center’s primary focus has recently shifted from unaccompanied minors to the related problems of immigrant families, mainly mothers with children, who are often apprehended at the Mexican border but may later end up in New York, traumatized, in legal limbo and, now, with new fears arising from the Trump administration’s threats.
“These families are often in critical need not only of legal representation but also of medical and mental health support,” Bernwanger said. In December, the Feerick Center hosted a major conference of scholars and public interest groups called “Adelante: Meeting the Social and Legal Services Needs of Central American Refugees in New York.”
For Fordham Law students, perhaps the most exciting new opportunity has been the partnership with the CARA Pro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas, to provide limited-scope legal advice to detained mothers—quick consultations to help these women make the case that they have a “credible fear” of abuse or violence back home, and so are likely to receive asylum in the United States.
Participation by Fordham students and alumni, in weeklong stints over the holidays, was initiated in 2016 by the Feerick Center and is now co-managed by the Immigration Advocacy Project student group. Those who have made the trip, with its 12-hour days of concentrated human contact, call it exhilarating and life-changing.
It is impossible to know what lies ahead for immigrants in New York and the country, but Fordham Law will certainly be engaged with the issue. As President Trump aimed to restrict new immigrants and stepped up enforcement against those already here (including his vow to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities), New York City pledged to do everything in its power to protect them.
In just six months, FLIPP has conducted 60 workshops around the city and served more than 2,000 individuals, almost 90 percent of whom were students.
“One thing that Fordham has in addition to the three of us,” Gordon said, referring to Solimene, Galacatos, and herself, “is a student body that is ready to do whatever it takes to defend immigrant rights.”
With all the School’s different projects, she said, “it’s a magnifying effect.”
“We can take all these interested students, provide them training and support, and send them out into the world to do what needs to be done.”