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Out of the Shadows

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“I went to Vermont Law School because I knew I wanted to do public interest law,” says Erin Jacobsen ’11. She didn’t know then how powerful the experiential part of her law education would be — or how valuable the South Royalton Legal Clinic would be in her legal training. As part of her summer term working for the clinic, she met regularly with women incarcerated in Vermont jails, some of them immigrants awaiting asylum. She came to earn their trust and learn their stories — and grow angry at “a due-process black hole that felt like double injustice to me,” she recalls thinking. “Denying asylum and deporting these people could be a death sentence. Access-to-justice issues got me fired up.”

Under the mentorship of supervising attorney Art Edersheim, Jacobsen assisted in cases with Burlington-based Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates. She turned her work as a student into a full-time position after graduation. She serves, now, as VIAA’s lead staff attorney.

Among the dozen or so active cases she’s working on is “Daniel,” a political refugee from a war-torn country in Africa who’s seeking political asylum. Daniel has been working two jobs — more than 70 hours a week — but has no credit, so no permanent housing. Like other tortured immigrants, Daniel must travel a difficult path to asylum in the U.S. Challenged by a new language, often unable to pay for legal services, traumatized to a degree that can make recalling details of their torture difficult, the immigrants need to submit lengthy applications that meet strict legal requirements. Beyond their compelling stories: What’s germane under legal principle? Does this meet an admissible definition of evidence? Erin met with Daniel each week for more than six months to build his application, and now they wait for an interview in a system that is badly backlogged. Meanwhile, Daniel’s work authorization is about to expire, so Erin is helping with his renewal application. “Erin. She’s like my mother,” Daniel says. “She cares about me.”

In VIAA’s work with immigrants, Jacobsen works with experienced attorneys, social workers, and psychology students from the University of Vermont — and law students back in South Royalton. One of those students, Alona Tate ’15, has been moved in the same way that Jacobsen was just a few years before her. “These people have lived lives I can’t even begin to imagine,” Tate says. “Their courage is extraordinary. It’s so rewarding to be able help in a way that truly makes a difference in people’s lives.”