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Pop-up law clinics to serve rural immigrants

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Thousands of protesters make their way down the streets of Minneapolis.
Thousands of protesters make their way down the streets of downtown Minneapolis during a march protesting federal immigration policies in June 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News 2018

A new pop-up law clinic will soon set up at community centers, libraries and church basements in rural communities around the state.

The University of Minnesota Law School has added the mobile clinic to an already existing set of immigration law services to focus on a remote population that lacks access to legal assistance.

Like elsewhere, immigrant communities in the southwest part of the state have seen an increase in arrests and detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible immigration violations.

Deepinder Mayell, director for education and outreach and executive director of the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, said that in 2017, the law school began to hear from community partners about growing need and anxiety in rural immigrant communities. The school put together a rural access initiative, through which volunteer attorneys and students went out to rural communities for assessments.

The mobile clinic is an outgrowth of that project.

Mayell said increased enforcement, coupled with isolated locations, makes the rural population particularly vulnerable and in need of consistent visits.

"At the same time over the last, I would say, 20 years, avenues for legal relief or avenues for immigration status have narrowed substantially or grown much more complex," he said. "They're also vulnerable because many immigrants in these communities live in mixed-status families."

Five law students will work with licensed attorneys to screen and assess clients during their visits to the communities. They plan to start next week and travel to Le Sueur, Windom, Faribault, Worthington and Austin, Minn., this semester.

While immigrants in legal proceedings could hire attorneys, they are not provided one no matter their circumstances. Mayell said rural residents face financial obstacles that keep them from securing representation, which can affect the outcome of the case.

"There are several studies that identify that having an attorney in an immigration case can make a very significant difference in whether you succeed or not," he said. "Particularly in some of the more challenging areas like asylum law."

Program directors aim to conduct 10 to 12 visits each school year.