The UNM School of Law has launched its first-ever Border Justice Fellowship Program, a key component of the school’s Border Justice Initiative focused on ensuring the legal system’s just treatment of immigrants at the U.S. southern border.
Jorge Rodriguez, a recent UNM School of Law graduate and new lawyer, was selected to serve as the program’s first fellow and will be placed at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas.
The two-year Border Justice Fellowship is the result of a partnership between the UNM School of Law and the Jacqueline Marie Leaffer Foundation. Professor April Land calls the fellowship an “excellent example of a public-private partnership for the benefit of those in greatest need.”
“We are excited to have the chance to expand the quantity and quality of legal services to people in underserved immigrant communities as a result of the generous donation of the JML Foundation, the hard work and commitment of our graduates who work and supervise in this area, and the support of our law school community,” she said.
Meet Our Fellow
Rodriguez is the grandson of Braceros and immigrants, Rodriguez comes from Salem, a small colonia in southern New Mexico, where he worked in the surrounding agricultural fields and processing plants until he was 24. A first-generation college student, Rodriguez felt a strong need to return to his community.
“As for many people, the events of 2016 hit close to home. I was in a graduate program, but I felt I needed to be close to family and community,” he said.
He returned home and started working in the fields, simultaneously trying to organize and bring ‘know your rights' training to his community.
“As an organizer, I learned and experienced the power of community. My work and time with my community emphasized the need for direct legal representation. Now I can help respond to that need,” he said.
Working Together with Las Americas
Rodriguez will be working with other attorneys at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, providing immigration legal assistance to people displaced and terrorized by human trafficking or religious, political, ethnic, or gender-based persecution and abuse. He says he is eager to begin work.
“Every person deserves to live with dignity and respect,” Rodriguez said. “Like most issues, immigration is a complex topic; however, the approach to addressing the issues is straightforward. Immigration is a humanitarian issue and should be approached through a humanitarian-centered perspective.”
Community immigration attorney Alison Cimino, who also mentors and teaches students including Rodriguez, said there is a huge and high demand for immigration attorneys.
“Jorge's compassion and interest in immigrants and their struggles began before he went to law school,” Cimino said. “This fellowship will allow him to represent the population closest to his heart as he gains practice experience.”
Our Unique Model
The Border Justice Initiative’s fellowship model is innovative in that it allows faculty and adjuncts at the School of Law to continue to provide some of the mentorship and supervision, which, in turn, allows the host organization to continue its focus on addressing the legal issues of immigrants.
“We will continue to support and mentor Jorge in conjunction with his supervisors at Las Americas, while he learns to perfect his craft and become a community leader and mentor to students following his path,” said Ann Delpha, adjunct professor and staff attorney for the Initiative.
Serving Immigrants, Today and into the Future
The Border Justice Initiative was created in 2019, through a coordinated effort between the Jacqueline Marie Leaffer Foundation and the School of Law, in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border that has continued to escalate. The Initiative provides hands-on, real-time, service-learning opportunities through classes and externships for UNM law students interested in immigration law, with a goal of ensuring the legal system’s just treatment of immigrants at our southern border, with a particular focus on children and families.
Additionally, the Initiative creates a border justice pipeline from school to the border and beyond.
Land said the initiative has plenty of future work.
“We plan to create an ongoing pipeline of capable and inspired attorneys working with us and through us to ensure immigrants have access to legal services and opportunities,” she said.
Rodriguez is very happy to be part of the pipeline.
“I came to law school with the goal of becoming an immigration attorney and returning to my community,” he said. “Throughout my three years at UNM, I stayed true to my commitment and actively pursued mentorship and opportunities to achieve my goal. Law school is unique for everyone; however, UNM provides the environment to create your own path.”
For more information about the program, visit the School of Law’s website.