HIP students participating in Citizenship Day in Boston on September 23, 2018

By: Austin Davis, J.D. ’19

The Harvard Law School Immigration Project (HIP) has been the best part of my law school experience. Nothing but respect for the other SPOs – HIP just can’t compete with calling a social event “PLAPpy Hour” – but I’ve found the most engaged, dependable, and passionate students anywhere at HIP.

I joined HIP because immigrants are the cornerstone of my family and my country, and immigrant rights are under siege. But I also joined because spending all my time in the classroom was giving me hives. I wanted to work with an actual person, dive into their story, and help bring some humanity to law.

HIP’s work provides the perfect outlet for that energy. Some members assist families with byzantine green card applications or work authorization forms. Others represent indigent clients at bond hearings, or provide Know Your Rights presentations to groups of non– United States citizens at local community centers.

Personally, I’ve spent most of my time working with HIP’s chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). It’s an international organization with chapters at 28 law schools that works with refugees abroad and former war-zone translators for the United States. And during my 1L year, I had the chance to work on a case with a fellow 1L partner and lawyers from the New York City firm Cleary Gottlieb.

The stakes were high. Our clients were a same-sex couple tortured by their government and abused by their families in their country of origin. They had fled to a second country, where the revelation of their sexual orientation had led to further physical and sexual assaults. They were broke, they didn’t speak the language, and suffered ongoing harassment and violence.

As lawyers in touch via Skype and living an ocean away, our role was soberingly limited. But we could help them push through the refugee system, to get out of their situation and receive resettlement clearance for Europe or the United States. And to that end, we did successfully petition the United Nations for our clients to receive an expedited refugee determination. That was the first step they needed in order to activate the international resettlement mechanisms, and we cut their resettlement wait time down by well over a year – a year which, by our clients’ account, would have proved very dangerous.

But this case makes up just one part of my HIP involvement. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend “advice and counsel” sessions organized by HIP’s Community Outreach Initiative (COI). On one occasion, we students and our legal supervisors spent a couple hours in a Chelsea church basement talking with a gathered group of Haitian noncitizens. We helped provide honest, on-the-fly assessments of whatever concerns they had: their immigration status, the visa risks of leaving the country, or the president’s mood.

In addition, I’ve participated in Boston’s Citizenship Day with HIP’s Immigration Services Project (ISP), where we worked through the fine details of certain US citizenship forms with people preparing their applications. All in all, everything I’ve done through HIP has been client-centered, challenging, and immensely rewarding.

Plus, back at school, it’s been a delight to be surrounded by so many law students looking to do real work in the world. It was an essential community for me as a 1L, trying to navigate this gigantic law school. And over my three years with HIP, I’ve really valued how our members bring so many different perspectives, experiences, and motivations. It’s rarer than it should be to have people with a professional focus on the Central American humanitarian crises engaging with people focused on the Syrian civil war. In HIP, they come together, and we learn so much from each other.

HIP has provided the most meaningful experiences for me at law school, through the legal service work or making great friends. It doesn’t matter what year in law school you are or your background in immigration law: I’d highly recommend that all HLS students consider joining HIP.