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Student Spotlight

Witness for Justice

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Sometimes blind justice requires eyes—or so goes the philosophy behind the Detainee Working Group (DWG) begun by Reena Arora ’08 two years ago to help improve the experience of defendants at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Immigration Court.

As a 1L, Arora became aware of a similar group that had been started in Massachusetts, and decided to launch her own version in New York. Arora’s concerns with problematic courtroom procedures were broad: lack of proper translation services; t he need for information on basic rights to relief in the immigration system; mistreatment of and bias against defendants, and collusion bet ween government attorneys and judges.

Arora, who spent two years working on human rights issues in India, Thailand and South Africa before enrolling at NYU, developed a simple but apparently effective solution: Students would be assigned as observers in the courtrooms of the Immigration Court, where Department of Homeland Security attorneys bring cases against immigrant detainees. Arora described her initial impressions of Immigration Court in a speech in Washington, D.C. last October, when she received the LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell Exemplary Public Service Award from Equal Justice Works in recognition of her role in creating the DWG. “Immigrants were brought in wearing orange jumpsuits and shackles, treated like criminals for what is a civil violation,” she said. “Their lawyers came in mumbling and rambling, rarely having the adequate defenses, and the interpreters barely interpreted one-tenth of the proceeding, leaving most of the immigrants incredibly confused. I remember thinking, ‘Here their rights aren’t being protected, and these people are stripped of all the human dignity that they have.’”

Arora believes that the DWG’s work has made judges more conscientious and less arbitrary. David Stern, chief executive officer of Equal Justice Works, said, “The students help assert procedural due process rights—and keep our country’s promise of equal justice under law. We applaud Reena’s passion and commitment to public service.”

The hearings in the Immigration Court system, in which more than 50 courts nationwide are not subject to the same standards of due process required of regular courts, are only a small part of the immigrant detainees’ world. Detainees are often sent elsewhere to receive hearings by detention commissions; many removal proceedings take place in prisons and jails. But, in two tiny courtrooms in a nondescript building on Varick Street, Arora says law students are “trying to help restore due process in a small way.”

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