Sarah Paoletti Leads Penn Law’s International Human Rights and Immigration Clinic

Sarah Paoletti (’00) has served as the director of the Transnational Legal Clinic (TLC), the University of Pennsylvania Law School's international human rights and immigration clinic, since founding it in 2006. We spoke to her about her work, how it relates to her Skadden Fellowship and how it has changed over the past few years.

What does your role at TLC entail?

Each semester, I lead a clinic for about eight to 14 students focused on developing legal skills and cross-cultural awareness through live client representation. When we launched the clinic, the law school was looking to fill a gap in its “international” offerings, and the thought was that the clinic could focus on asylum cases, which are good teaching cases and provide opportunities to look at human rights violations in other countries while also providing access to justice to people here in the United States. I also very much wanted it to be a hybrid clinic, with direct representation of individuals in immigration proceedings as well as broader policy work addressing the rights of migrants and immigrants in the U.S. and globally. Working in teams of two, students each take on two to four matters over the course of the semester, with at least one direct client representation at immigration proceedings and one matter involving exposure to broader immigration, migration or related human rights advocacy.

Your Skadden Fellowship addressed these areas simultaneously as well, correct?

In law school, I struggled to balance my interest in international human rights work outside the U.S. with the recognition of the very real human rights issues in our own country. Friends of Farmworkers, which serves a largely non-native population with cross-border issues, addressed both. My work was primarily labor and employment law representation, but it was population-driven. In the apple industry, for example, there was a lot of outreach at the labor camps, night after night talking to workers about their experiences and basic rights — explaining minimum wage; talking about what was promised versus what was paid; responding to health, safety and housing concerns. In the mushroom industry, we represented several independent unions, as well as workers trying to form unions, while also advising them on state law, housing and unemployment compensation issues.

Tell us a little more about the work being done at the clinic.

Students in the clinic represent individuals from across the world primarily in asylum cases, as well as in claims for T and U visas, which are for victims of trafficking and particularly serious crimes. Our asylum clients have included survivors of domestic violence, child labor and female genital cutting; political activists fighting for the rights of students; and migrant workers fraudulently recruited into forced labor, among others.

We’ve also done a lot of work before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), on issues such as immigration detention and due process violations, in coalition with local and national civil and human rights organizations. The clinic’s efforts before IACHR include securing a victory in a 10-year battle on behalf of two undocumented workers who had been injured on the job and denied workers’ compensation benefits solely because of their immigration status. The decision recognized the rights of all workers, regardless of migration status, to nondiscrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.

In the past couple of years, we’ve worked increasingly with the binational worker rights organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. Most recently, we engaged in a comprehensive study on the impact of gender in labor-based visa programs and the ways in which women are trapped in jobs in which they are often subjected to sexual abuse, discrimination and harassment, and generally receive fewer benefits. Our work outside the United States has included travel to a refugee camp in Ghana to take statements about refugees’ experiences there and in Liberia, and researching issues relating to access to justice for migrant workers in Nepal who are employed primarily in the Gulf States and Malaysia. We’re now working with organizations in Nepal to implement recommendations we made in that report.

How has your work changed over the past year or two?

The current climate has dramatically amplified the anxieties of our clients and, by extension, the students. In clinical teaching, we often say that the hardest thing for students to wrap their brains around is indeterminacy, but today’s environment is full of increased uncertainty and heightened risks to our clients. Our clinic students are accustomed to their first-year curriculum, in which there’s black letter law and everything’s nicely digested in case excerpts. Those classes may be challenging, but there is often a “right” answer. In practice, however, students have to learn to navigate indeterminacy on steroids, where not only are the facts not always clear, but the legal rules, procedures and practices do not provide for certainty. The January 2018 executive order on internal immigration enforcement, for example, has erased the guidelines on who is a priority for removal, effectively making everyone a priority, and the rules of how things used to happen no longer exist, which makes it much harder to counsel clients and supervise students. That’s also why our presence and services, both in the human rights arena and in individual immigration proceedings, is that much more important.