Yale lawyer addresses immigration legal crisis

Yale Law School graduate and West Virginia University Law School professor, Alison Peck, virtually addressed the lack of immigration legal services in the state to the Marshall Pre-Law club on Monday.  

“In America, we have no universal culture or language — we are united by our dedication to the US Constitution and law,” Peck said.   

Peck studied journalism, Spanish and French at Butler University before attending Yale Law School and then received her LL.M from the University of Arkansas in Agricultural Law.  

“When Donald Trump was elected President, with promises of really overhauling and making much more restrictive, the immigration system, we knew that it was going to create a lot of demand for immigration legal services,” Peck said. “So, I thought, well, I speak Spanish, and I’ve always dealt with global issues, so maybe I could learn [to head the immigration clinic at WVU Law].”  

Peck is the Director of the Immigration Law Clinic and Director of International Programs at WVU’s Law School.  

“These statistics may surprise you, but there are close to 30,000 immigrants in West Virginia, which is 2% of the population, and another 2% that lives with an immigrant family member, so that is not a large percentage of our population,” Peck said. “So, a lot of people think there is not much immigration work in West Virginia.”  

Peck said there is currently only one full-time immigration lawyer in this state.  

“There are a few other attorneys who do it part-time, and then we, at the clinic, do it part-time, but there are other classes to teach, and we do research and writing. There are other nonprofit organizations that are starting to devote some time and resources of theirs to it, but none of them are doing it part-time, and there is a very small number,” Peck said.  

Peck said there is an equivalent of four immigrant lawyers available in this state to represent 30,000 people.  

“So, when you think about that, there’s actually probably more need for immigration legal services in West Virginia than in southern California,” said Peck.  

Montserrat Miller, Executive Director of the John Deaver Drinko Academy, was in attendance and reinforced Peck’s urgency to bring more immigration legal services to the state.  

“Obviously there are social class issues involved, race, class and gender, with this but because of our geographic location [in West Virginia] we kind of think of immigration as someone else’s problem,” Miller said. “The immigrants that are most visible to us are academic and medical professionals, so I believe some of us have the tendency to think that those immigration cases are the no-brainers or the easy ones, and the stigma associated with the individuals coming here in search of work, I personally think it is one of the great human rights crises of our era.”  

Miller said she believes many West Virginian’s opinions and attitudes towards immigrants are colored by social class biases and prejudices.  

The Immigration Law Clinic at WVU tries to take cases when they can, but they have to turn many away and direct them to the services available in the state that Peck said she knows are likely to be already overwhelmed.  

“It is impossible to overstate how much difference it makes in terms of your chances of getting relief in the immigration laws. If you have a lawyer, your odds are probably 1,000 to one better,” Peck said. “The system is so technical that even lawyers struggle to comply with every part of the law because it is extremely complex.”  

Peck said her colleagues in the field of law often question how she can handle dealing with such high-stakes cases.  

“I understand the feeling, but for me, when I look at the situation that immigrants are in, particularly in West Virginia, I think ‘you know, I am not perfect. My students and I are not perfect, but we are a lot better than nobody,” Peck said. “And that is who else these people have to turn to.”  

Isabella Robinson can be contacted at [email protected].