Immigration-Inspired: An Interview With Professor and Director of Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic Sioban Albiol

For over 15 years, Professor Sioban Albiol has led DePaul College of Law's Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic (“AILC”). As the director of AILC, Professor Albiol guides students in providing legal assistance to refugees and immigrants, as well as collaborates with similarly committed organizations throughout the state. Her work (and the work of the clinic) is well-recognized and Profession Albiol is called upon regularly to provide her perspective on a wide range of immigration issues regionally and nationally. With the candidacy and subsequent election of President Donald Trump in 2016, questions regarding immigration law have been on the forefront of the national consciousness.

In her own words: “The ongoing purpose of the Clinic is to ensure that students have opportunities to engage in immediate and pressing issues surrounding immigration, asylum, and refugee law. I hope that AILC can continue contributing to the training and expertise needed to continue its mission.”

We talked with Professor Albiol about her work with the Clinic, which shows her tireless commitment to immigration issues and access to justice.

Q. What made you decide to focus in asylum and immigration law?

Before I went to law school, I had an interest in immigration given my own personal background - both of my parents immigrated to the United States - but it was really only after I had been practicing a little while that I made it my focus. I made a point of getting exposure to a couple of different areas of law after completing some immigration-focused internships, but decided to return to asylum and immigration law. I think I’ve been drawn to this field because of my experiences with clients who were willing to trust their stories to me and because of a community of amazing, dedicated immigration advocates.

Q. How did you become part of AILC?

I joined the Clinic in 2001. Before that, I had worked for a not-for-profit providing low-cost legal services to immigrants and managing its legal services program. AILC interested me as an opportunity to collaborate with legal experts and to offer the considerable resources of a law school to immigrants and refugees with legal issues.

Q. How many students are involved in the AILC every year? What are some of their most common responsibilities?

AILC offers two main clinical courses – (a) a year-long asylum and immigration law clinic, where the focus is on representing asylum-seekers and (b) a semester-long clinic, where the focus is on providing legal assistance in immigration matters. Consistent with clinical best practices, enrollment for each is generally limited to eight students per clinical course (16 total per semester).

Clinic students receive guidance from faculty members and alumni. Our faculty-student ratio means that students are provided with valuable support, training and supervision in developing essential lawyering skills, while at the same time meeting a significant community need. Students are involved in every aspect of a case, including developing the case theory, leading client meetings, drafting pleadings and preparing and presenting the case to US Citizenship and Immigration Services or before a judge in Immigration Court. Moreover, students are allowed to interact with other professionals - from expert witnesses to fellow practitioners.

Along with this type of legal experience, students get to further their expertise by developing informative training materials for immigrant advocates who provide services to low-income individuals.

Q. What are the most common types of cases handled by AILC?

Students in the year-long clinic represent asylum-seekers from dozens of countries. AILC has been successful in winning asylum for clients who would be persecuted if they were returned to their home countries because of their political opinions, religion, sexual orientation, gender and other affiliations. Students also work with survivors of domestic violence and crime victims and help clients – both newcomers and those with extensive ties to the United States - become naturalized citizens.

Q. What are some of the most common issues you've encountered when handling cases?

It is difficult to predict the range of issues that a case may present. Clinic students are engaged in the practice of law; they play a lead role in the cases they have been assigned and in that lead role, they must examine and sort through actual ethical and strategic issues; develop and analyze facts; and understand how the law applies to an individual seeking its protections and benefits. Taking ownership of the case provides students with unique opportunities related to their professional development. They learn to appreciate client needs and circumstances and to examine their own role as lawyers, including their relationship with the client as well as their responsibilities to the client and to the profession.

Q. What would you consider to be some of the most notable/interesting achievements of AILC during your time at DePaul?

Over the past 15 years, I think AILC has become trusted within the legal and immigration community. It is recognized as a respected resource of immigration advocacy and has obtained a reputation of providing quality immigration legal services.

Throughout my time in the Clinic, I’ve had a number of opportunities to accompany students to non-adversarial hearings with the Asylum Office and to Immigration Court to see how well prepared they are and the case is. It’s wonderful to see a student’s work acknowledged in these professional settings, and for students I think there is no better reward than being able to witness a positive outcome for their clients.

In addition to aiding students, AILC offers technical assistance to around 30 non-governmental organizations throughout Illinois. It has collaborated with groups such as Catholic Charities, the National Immigrant Justice Center, and the Chicago Legal Clinic. It also recently co-sponsored a conference on guardianship and immigrants, which looked at mixed families and providing support for minor children of immigrants.

Q. What are some of the changes you've noticed since the election of President Trump?

DePaul has always had an active and interested student body that is committed to service and public interest. The rhetoric directed against immigrants and refugees preceding and following the 2016 presidential election meant that students and alumni took more opportunities to become informed, involved and supportive of all members of our community. They engage in community education, outreach and in increasing support for immigrants and refugees.

Q. What are some of the biggest concerns facing your clients and the Clinic as a whole since the election? What do you see as some of the biggest issues affecting the current state of asylum and immigration law?

I think the discussion leading up to and following the presidential election reflected a lack of respect for the rule of law and legal protections. I think for some this created a misconception about what is acceptable or permissible in a system of laws. It’s been disheartening to consider the scope of punitive and mean-spirited proposals directed toward immigrants. At the same time, it has been encouraging to work with so many newly engaged and re-engaged advocates who are active in expanding our resources and expertise to better serve our communities.

Leading up to the election, many of the programs and policy directives in place under the Obama administration that impacted the work of AILC were called into question. Members were forced to think about what the new landscape would look like, and how it would affect ongoing and upcoming litigation. Although the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA, founded in 2012) is still one of the biggest concerns, the overall confusion and uncertainty surrounding this field requires continuing education and information about the basic rights shared by all of us.

Since the election, we've seen a regular increase in people wanting to get involved. Students in and outside of the Clinic, as well as alumni and other legal professionals, have turned to AILC to see how they can express their support. Along with volunteering in the Clinic, people have given community education presentations and spread information about what executive orders actually mean.

Q. What would you like to see the Clinic doing more of?

The Clinic has so many wonderful alumni in practice in and around Chicago and across the United States. I’d like to explore how the Clinic can better learn from our experienced, diverse and accomplished alumni and better engage them with the work of the Clinic and our Clinic students. A lot of 1Ls have also expressed interest in participating with AILC, and I wish to provide additional service opportunities for them and others who can't presently join. ​​