Law School Professor Inspired by Her Own Background to Help Immigrant Children

October 08, 2014
Photo by Eileen Barroso.

In 1970, Elora Mukherjee’s father arrived in New York City from India on an engineering scholarship with $7 in his pocket. After her mother joined him six years later, the two of them worked multiple jobs and long hours in the hopes of providing their daughters with the opportunities they never had. During childhood trips back to Patna, the capital of the Indian state of Bihar, Mukherjee began to see what it meant for her to grow up in America.

“Patna has just unbelievable poverty,” says Mukherjee, an associate professor at Columbia Law School who oversees the school’s immigrants’ rights clinic. “Growing up and seeing the very stark contrast between how people lived in Patna and how I lived in the U.S. made me realize at a young age that the world is unfair, and I should do what I could, as I got older, to make even a small difference in people’s lives.”

The clinic, launched as a pilot program last spring and officially established in the fall semester, is now representing a dozen children who crossed the southern border without a parent to accompany them. “All these children are legally entitled to status in the United States through asylum or special immigrant juvenile status,” Mukherjee said. “The 10 students in my clinic will be representing them in all aspects on the proceedings.” The clinic also represents a number of adults who are seeking asylum and other forms of immigration relief.

As head of the clinic, Mukherjee supervises students in their representation of clients and oversees advocacy work on immigration policy issues. She also advises students in a new Law School partnership with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit that provides legal representation to unaccompanied minors in immigration proceedings.

Given her family history, it’s not surprising that Mukherjee was drawn to immigrants’ rights work. As a student at Yale Law School she worked in the immigration clinic on asylum applications. After clerking for a federal judge in Pennsylvania, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union as a legal fellow and litigated her first cases involving children detained at a prison-turned-detention center for immigrant families 35 miles south of Austin, Texas.

Mukherjee investigated the grim conditions at the center, where children and parents alike wore prison garb and were locked in cells for 12 hours a day. Many children hadn’t been outside in a month. Paper and pencils were banned from cells after a 9-year-old boy’s drawing was taken out of the center and drew attention for the words he wrote in bright orange marker: “I don’t like to stay in this jail.”

In 2007, Mukherjee and her ACLU colleagues negotiated a far-reaching settlement that improved conditions and shortened the length of time that families were detained. All 26 children represented by the ACLU team were released. In 2009 the federal government ended family detention there; now the facility only houses adult women.

Right now, immigration by undocumented minors is at an all-time high, particularly in the border states, where for the 11 months through August, 65,005 minors were apprehended compared to 38,045 for all of fiscal 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The influx of these children isn’t confined to the Southwest; their second largest destination is the greater New York area, where many have family members.

Undocumented minors who can prove they’ve been abandoned, abused or neglected by either of their parents such that family reunification is not possible can seek special immigrant juvenile status. Victims of human trafficking, as well as crime victims, are also eligible for other forms of immigration relief.

Litigating these cases can be immensely complex because immigrants have few constitutional rights, and those in removal proceedings have no right to counsel. “Many immigrants with legitimate claims to status have no one to help them navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system,” Mukherjee said. “Our clinic provides critical legal services to individuals who would otherwise be forced to navigate the immigration system alone.”

As clinic director, Mukherjee also works to develop relationships with a broad range of Columbia scholars and departments, such as physicians at the medical center who might help with psychiatric and medical evaluations of clients. Such connections, Mukherjee notes, can benefit clients while at the same time ensuring that clinic students become adept at working with professionals in other fields.

“Our clients have been pursuing the same dream that my parents had when they came to America,” she says. “And that is the opportunity to create a better life for themselves, for their families, and especially for their children.”

By Columbia Law School News