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Law Schools are seeing the 'Trump Effect', More Students Studying Immigration Law

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Law school instructors said there's been a rise in the number of students studying immigration law in response to President Trump's aggressive stance on immigration enforcement.

The increased interest started with the president's travel ban, which came down on Jan. 27, 2017, stranding travelers and creating chaos that lasted weeks in airports across the country. In Boston, protesters, journalists, politicians, and lawyers flooded Logan Airport's international terminal.

Professor Hemanth Gundavaram said Northeastern University's immigrant justice clinic was born that night.

"Northeastern looked and saw how many students were passionate about what was happening and decided to set into motion the immigrant justice clinic," he said.

Gundavaram, who now co-directs the clinic, said it offers students the chance to work on real cases so they can learn firsthand about the complexities of asylum, deportation and the ever-changing rules governing U.S. immigration law.

Gundavaram said the clinic has attracted more and more students who not only see these policies playing out in the news, but also in their own lives.

"We've had people who have been undocumented themselves, students who had family members who are undocumented, many students who are immigrants themselves," he explained. "So I think it's a very personal thing for a lot of students."

Gathered in Gundavaram's office, a few of the clinic's students discussed an asylum case. Asylum has been arguably one of the areas of immigration law that changed the most under Trump.

"I started law school just before the [2016] election, and that definitely kind of pushed me into immigration law after everything started happening," said Jessica Johnson, who recently graduated.

Johnson said she’s ready to jump into immigration full-time, especially as the Trump administration continues its tough stance on immigrant issues.

"It's definitely, you know, reinforced my passion for helping these people, seeing all the changes that are harming them and their families," Johnson added.

A 2017 poll from Gallup and the Association of American Law Schools asked about student motivations for entering law school. James Greif, communications director for the association, said social justice was a clear trend in survey responses.

"Public-spirited and civic-minded motivations led the list of reasons, and these are the students that are applying to law school today," he said. "Increased interest in pursuing a career in immigration law seems to be part of this overall trend."

This trend also bore out at Boston University's Immigrants' Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic, where Associate Director Sarah Sherman-Stokes said there have been consistently more students wanting to enroll than space allows.

“In 2018, over 1,400 BU law applicants expressed a really strong interest in immigration law, which represented almost a quarter of the BU law school applicants.”

That's up from about a fifth in 2013.

Across the U.S., law schools have responded by creating or expanding immigrants' rights programs. The University of Denver, University of North Carolina, Santa Clara University and Rutgers Law School are among them, to name a few.

Gundavaram and other practicing immigration attorneys feel optimistic about this trend. He and others said they hope it signals the end of what they see as a steady shortage of immigration attorneys.

"The idea of all these students coming to law school for this," he said, "and graduating and kind of perpetuating a growth in eventually the number of attorneys who are doing this work is really important."

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