A Simple Change

by Lauren Picciallo

I have lived my life amidst two cultures that have loved and hated each other since the inception of Bernstein’s Westside Story. My father’s family is Italian American and my mother’s family is Puerto Rican. When I visit Puerto Rico, I enjoy the lush greenery, the sweet scent of sugar cane that my ancestors cultivated, and the old urban area of San Juan that was built during the Spanish Conquests. When I visited my grandfather, I appreciated the romantic language, his stories of the trip to the United States aboard a ship in the 1930s, and the traditional family recipe of five meat gravy passed from my great-grandmother.

Yet with the beauty of different cultures, there is conflict. There have been instances where I have heard distressing remarks about people of Hispanic origin. He is probably “illegal,” as though the very presence of a person can cause their being “illegal.” The bumper sticker on a car, which states “It’s America, speak English” as though the United States is not an amalgamation of different countries and languages from around the world. Perhaps it is my Hispanic roots, the witnessing my beloved grandparents receive the side-eye, the distressing remarks toward people in the Hispanic culture generally, that has drawn me to law school and the field of immigration law.

My second semester of my second year in law school, I joined the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (“Center”), and then I participated in the Center the remainder of my law school career. It is safe to say, that the Center has shaped my law school experience and the way I perceive the law as a career.

I. Semester One

My first semester, I was tasked with two projects, the revised version of the Cancellation of Removal Toolkit, and the second which culminated in a presentation called “Rethinking Reentry: Prosecution, Defense, and Human Rights Perspectives.”

A. Cancellation of Removal Toolkit

Laura Lopez Ledesma and I were tasked with updating the 2010 Cancellation of Removal Toolkit. Once the semester started, we hit the ground running. Though a 2010 version existed, working to amass a knowledge and compilation of just one form of relief was an undertaking. We delved into what a lawful admission looked like, the stop time rule, aggravated felony, the categorical approach, the modified categorical approach, case law on the discretionary component of LPR Cancellation of Removal, among other things. Beyond the case law, we conducted interviews on best practices, learned about evidence necessary to show eligibility for relief, how to request criminal background from federal and state agencies, and a lot of blue booking, all the meanwhile learning about working with an institutional client, Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center[i] and meeting deadlines.

B. Rethinking Reentry: Prosecution, Defense, and Human Rights Perspectives

The same semester my other partner, William Brennan, and I were tasked with what I thought was a more amorphous task, continuing the dialogue with the Federal District Attorney’s Office[ii] and Public Defender’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.[iii] Both stakeholders have worked with immigrants whom have been charged criminally. The Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic became involved with the offices to determine how an immigrant facing the possibility of a charge with 8 USC §§ 1325 and 1326, Entry and Reentry, could present mitigating circumstances to either avoid charges or lessen the sentence.

Section 1325 criminalizes those noncitizens who attempt to enter the United States at a place other than those designated, elude examination by immigration office, or attempt to enter with willfully false or misleading representation or willful concealment of a material fact. Section 1326 charges criminalize any person who reenters after an order of exclusion, deportation, or removal. Many times, people who are prosecuted for entry or reentry come to the United States for one of three reasons: (1) to seek work; (2) to reunite with family; (3) to flee violence or sometimes persecution abroad.[iv]

Previous students had been working on a screening instrument for defendants charged with 8 USC §§ 1325 and 1326. First, my partner and I contacted the offices to see what revisions could be made to the screening instrument. At this point the content of the screening instrument was nearly complete. The screening instrument included mitigating factors such as the defendant’s health, family in the United States, and overall ties to the United States. While the content was nearly complete but for some formatting, my partner and I still were trying to find what was the best utility for the screening instrument. Was the screening instrument best served in the hands of the United States District Attorneys’ Offices or the Public Defenders’ Offices? Additionally, we wanted our participation with the offices to continue beyond the revisions for the screening instrument.

In the end, our project culminated in a panel discussion named “Rethinking Reentry: Prosecution, Defense, and Human Rights Perspectives” where my partner and I presented the finalized screening instruments and hosted a panel discussion on the entry and reentry charges. The speakers included the U.S. District Attorney and two Assistant Federal Public Defenders for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and a Senior Researcher from Human Rights Watch. My partner and I formulated a series of questions for the speakers about the federal interests in prosecuting noncitizens for illegal entry and reentry, whether such federal interests are served when considering the significant humanitarian costs of the prosecutions, and the role of prosecutorial discretion.

In this unique non-adversarial setting, the Federal Public Defenders could voice their experience about their ability to present mitigating factors to the United States District Attorney’s Office. As noted by the Penn State Law article on the event, Assistant Federal Public Defender Freese stated: “By the time our office is involved, the client has been indicted, charged with a felony, and there is very little that can be done in terms of considering mitigation to lessen the charges.”[v] She continued to state: “We’re not telling this information to the prosecutor, but telling this to a judge.”[vi] Unfortunately, for the Defendants with charges of Entry or Reentry, this means that little opportunity exists for the Public Defender to present mitigating factors to the opposing counsel prior to filing of the charges to the court. Therefore, little opportunity exists for the U.S. Attorney to be informed about mitigating factors such as the unity of family or fear of return to native country on account of violence or persecution.

Prior to my experience in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights, my conception of the lawyer was a client-attorney based model. However, the clinic has taught me that to be an attorney can be much more. My first semester taught me that advocating for an individual client, includes advocating for an institutional change or educating attorneys about best practices and analyses of an avenue for relief. The institutional change can positively affect the life of not just one client, but many similarly situated people. This is true, where, such as in the case of the charges for Entry and Reentry, a simple change such as appointing a federal public defender earlier in the case could affect a person’s life.

II. Semester II

After the first semester, I continued in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights as an advanced clinical student. This semester I was able to work on two individualized cases. In one case, I assisted in the representation of a client who sought relief from deportation via applying for the U Visa. A U Visa is an immigration benefit created by Congress to support law enforcement efforts, by encouraging victims of crimes to report and cooperate with investigations and prosecutions, regardless of immigration status.[vii] The U Visa is available to noncitizen victims of certain qualifying crimes that have occurred in the United States, who have been helpful to an investigation or prosecution. As part of the application, the Department of Homeland Security requires that a designated certifying official sign a certification form, which attests that the victim is or has cooperated in the detection, investigation, and/or prosecution of the perpetrator. Initially, the project was focused on communicating with local law enforcement and government officials to obtain a certification verifying that the client was indeed a victim of the enumerated crime. However, the case plan expanded after speaking to several practitioners to reevaluating how to persuade local law enforcement to be willing to sign the certification for this case and in the future, and looking to the federal government to become a certifier.

III. Semester III

During my last semester in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights, I continued work on U Visa Case. At this point, it appeared that the certification would be obtained. With the certification, all forms for the client and her children were to be completed. Weekly, hours were spent with the client going over what was to be most likely over 100 pages of paperwork and statements. Also included with paperwork was the client’s personal statement, which involved recreating the crime she was victim to, the crime’s effects on her life, and her involvement with the detection, investigation, and prosecution of the crime. I imagine no person particularly likes to recreate a traumatizing event, so empathy and understanding became essential to this experience. The ability to begin the interview so as to orient the client about the purpose of the meeting, to recognize when a break is needed, or when the client needed to just tell the story without interruption was necessary.

In addition to the work on the U Visa, I participated in several presentations on the President Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration. The purpose of the presentations was to inform the community about the provisions in the orders and the order’s possible effects. Again, the clinic gave the opportunity to inform the community. This time, however, the time period to distill the information to a presentation form was more truncated than previously. The previous presentation in which I had presented, “Rethinking Reentry: Prosecution, Defense, and Human Rights Perspectives,” was a culmination of my work over the entire semester. In consequence of the rapidly changing immigration environment, the information was distilled and made into presentation form within a week. More of the people affected by the orders were fellow Penn State students. The first presentation on President Trump’s Executive Orders filled two classrooms in the law school, people were standing along the walls and in the aisles. Members of the State College community and Penn State University were present. I was given the opportunity to present on Public Safety Executive Order. As litigation on the Executive Orders progressed, I participated in two other Clinic presentations on the Executive Orders on Immigration to give updated information. These presentations impressed upon me the need affected communities have for accurate information and the need for immigrants’ in the United States to have a plan and an attorney when traveling.

Overall, the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic has allowed me to develop more a in depth understanding of what it is to be a lawyer. It has allowed me to meet many zealous practitioners in the field. It has given me a haven to practice the necessary skills of research, client interactions, development of case plans and theory, and oral advocacy in in an area of law that is incredibly complex not only because of the law itself, but because of the need of the people this area of law assists.

[i] See, Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, http://pirclaw.org (last visited October 31, 2017).

[ii] See, the United States Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Pennsylvania https://www.justice.gov/usao-mdpa (last visited November 11, 2017)

[iii] See, Federal Public Defender, Middle District of Pennsylvania, http://pam.fd.org (last visited, November 11, 2017)

[iv] See, Human Rights Watch, Turning Migrants into Criminals, 43 (May 2013) http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0513­_ForUpload_2.pdf.

[v] U.S. Attorney, Public Defenders, and Human Rights Expert Discuss Prosecution of Noncitizen illegal Entry and Reentry (April 2016) https://pennstatelaw.psu.edu/news/us-attorney-public-defenders-and-human-rights-expert-discuss-prosecution-noncitizen-illegal

[vi] U.S. Attorney, Public Defenders, and Human Rights Expert Discuss Prosecution of Noncitizen illegal Entry and Reentry (April 2016) https://pennstatelaw.psu.edu/news/us-attorney-public-defenders-and-human-rights-expert-discuss-prosecution-noncitizen-illegal


Citation: Lauren Picciallo, A Simple Change, in Back Into the Future of Immigration: Personal Stories by the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia ed., 2018). https://doi.org/10.18113/P8immigration8

Lauren Picciallo

Class of 2017
Lauren Picciallo