Brandeis’ Human Rights Fellowship aims to solve challenges for Louisville's immigration population

Four incoming 1Ls with diverse backgrounds and experiences have been named as inaugural first-year fellows in the Human Rights Fellowship Program. They include Briana Lathon, Kristen Barrow, Marianna Michael and Abigail Lewis.

The program will build off of the Louisville Bar Foundation’s Greenebaum Human Rights Fellowship that was created in the spring of 2014. The fellows, who were chosen for their interest in human rights advocacy, have been awarded an admissions-based grant and will work to address human rights needs in the Louisville community during their time in law school. The initial focus is on the city’s immigrant/refugee population.

Students will be able to explore human rights law through hands-on experiences and will develop research, project management and interpersonal skills while offering an opportunity to work with diverse and often vulnerable populations.

Their work will be supervised by Professors Enid Trucios-Haynes and Jamie Abrams.

Identifying opportunities

The initial work on the grant has so far included an extensive needs assessment effort identifying ways in which the law school could be active in the community on human rights issues. Together with the faculty supervisors, the 2014-15 LBFG Human Rights Fellows – Janet Lewis, Katherine Hall and Ben Potash – spent the school year examining what services are being provided to the immigrant population in the City of Louisville. Their preliminary findings have been communicated to local service providers and at a Muhammad Ali Center event which was geared toward the local immigrant/refugee community.

Additionally, the incoming fellows will use this research as a springboard to continue identifying unmet needs and to find solutions and opportunities. The preliminary findings were broken down into challenges/opportunities:

Challenge: Nearly all organizations surveyed consistently identified outreach challenges.
Opportunity: The Fellowship Program could be helpful in the effort to increase outreach efforts, including via a condensed resource guide and community-based needs assessments.

Challenge: Multiple respondents expressed support for more collaboration and communication among providers.
Opportunity: The Fellowship could host regular liaison meetings among organizations and others interested in the topic and any research projects could serve a dual purpose of distributing information to service providers and educating the community at large.

Challenge: Language access is identified as a “critical need,” including at domestic violence intake centers and courthouses.
Opportunity: Regular working group meetings can identify general gaps in language access services, as well as issues at government offices.

Challenge: Few comprehensive reports consider immigration and/or human rights issues in the city/state.
Opportunity: The Fellowship aims to provide public education about the legal system and human rights issues. Narrower topics affecting undocumented noncitizens can also be researched by fellows.

Challenge: Louisville’s noncitizen, immigrant and refugee population needs holistic services addressing a variety of concerns.
Opportunity: The Fellowship could act as a direct service provider via pro bono legal services in conjunction with other service providers.
With these findings, the group’s next objective is to develop and sustain an understanding of noncitizen population needs, and to address these needs more holistically.

The Human Rights fellows entering law school will be committed to implementing these recommendations and will work with alumni on cases, create outreach presentations and help come up with legislative proposals. They will also unveil a final report during the fall semester, create a resource guide for dissemination at schools, churches, community centers, etc., and host an annual summit of service providers.

Why immigration?

The initial focus has been on immigration needs because it is an area in which students have an interest, said Trucios-Haynes.

“I have been teaching this subject for the past 20 or so years and I have seen an increase in interest from students because of the greater public awareness of immigration policy issues. But it’s also an area of the law that includes the unique intersection of constitutional law, criminal law, international law and a statutory code that is complex,” she said.

In Kentucky specifically, the foreign-born population has grown from 0.9 percent in 1990 to 3.3 percent in 2013. Undocumented immigrants make up 2.6 percent of the state’s workforce. And, according to the report, 3.6 percent of this population speaks a language other than English. Public school children speak 116 languages at home.

“We have many undocumented children in Kentucky. And I think our biggest hurdle is educating people that they’re here, not just in Texas or California,” Abrams said. “Many people have no idea about the depth of our international community here, specifically in Louisville.”

Other law schools in major coastal cities have built these types of initiatives using fellowship-type programs. Abrams was familiar with one issued through her alma mater, American University. With the professors’ combined interest in immigration law, the idea to get a similar program going here was an exciting culmination to a transitional grant provided by the Louisville Bar Foundation.

Abrams and Trucios-Haynes are both aiming for the Human Rights Fellowship to have a sustained presence at Brandeis School of Law and to continue and accelerate work with the rest of the community on human rights issues.

“I hope to build something that is lasting and will provide assistance to our local community – both service providers and the immigrant/refugee/noncitizen community,” Trucios-Haynes said.

Once a dent has been made in the research and execution of the immigration project, the Brandeis Human Rights Fellowship’s focus could shift to other topics, such as women in detention centers, educational access or wage issues. The objective, however, will remain the same.

“Our dream is for this work to be collaborative between our students, faculty, alumni and community. There is a lot of work being done right now, but it’s being done mostly as piecemeal,” Abrams said. “There is a significant community need for these types of services and we will be more effective if we meet these needs holistically.”