“It often happens,” says Phil Torrey, managing attorney of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC), “that I’ll get a phone call from criminal-defense counsel somewhere random in the country, like the one last week I got from Tennessee. The lawyer says, ‘Hey, I’m about to go into the courtroom, here’s the plea deal that’s on the table—and my client’s not a U.S. citizen. What’s gonna happen?’” Torrey is addressing the four law students in his “crimmigration” clinic, who are learning how to advocate for criminal defendants who are not American citizens. A complex tangle of state and federal offenses—from petty theft to murder and drug crimes—can lead to detention or deportation for non-citizen immigrants, even those with green cards who have lived in the country for many years.
“Crimmigration”—the intersection of criminal and immigration law—is the newest policy area for HIRC, one of oldest clinical programs at Harvard Law School (HLS). In addition to its broader Immigration and Refugee Advocacy clinic, HIRC offers Torrey’s crimmigration clinic in the spring: an opportunity for students to gain direct experience working on and contributing to case law in this young field. When she co-founded HIRC in 1984, says clinical professor of law Deborah Anker, it “was at the bottom of the pile”; immigration issues were barely recognized as a subfield of law. But student interest has spiked since the 2016 election, and now, she says, the Immigration and Refugee Advocacy clinic has one of “the longest waiting lists among [HLS] clinics—about 100 students.”