UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Students in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC) at Penn State Law in University Park recently held an immigration-related training series at State College Police Department, furthering a seven-year collaboration in which the law school has helped with education and policy setting as it relates to immigration.
Second-year J.D. program student Nicole Bennett and LL.M. student Rim Dhaouadi developed and delivered four training sessions for State College police as part of the department’s annual training. They provided a presentation on immigration law and hosted interactive sessions with officers that highlighted the intersection of vulnerable international populations with police.
The law school’s efforts have been led by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Penn State Law’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, who is a clinical professor of law, chair of the law school’s diversity committee, and founder and director of CIRC.
Wadhia and immigration rights clinic students have worked with the State College borough since 2015. Through the collaboration, Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and Police Chief John Gardner announced a written policy on anti-bias-based policing and immigration in 2017.
Wadhia said the collaboration between the borough and law school provides students with crucial experience that enables them to educate police about immigration law and anti-bias based policing – but also to be part of a more global discussion about how communities can better assist survivors of crimes, no matter their immigration status.
“Clinical experiences like this allow students who are able to learn by doing and to gain skills in real time while still in law school, covering everything from legal analysis to problem solving to client communication and maintaining confidences,” said Wadhia, whose clinic also provides information and resources to the public in response to changing immigration policy, including asylum, the travel bans, DACA and immigration enforcement.
“Students play a lot of roles in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic,” Wadhia added. “The fact that they’re partnered with a municipality is an example of how wide-ranging lawyering is and how crucial it is to gain experience beyond the classroom and courtroom.”
Students go beyond theoretical knowledge of law
Dhaouadi, a lawyer in her native Tunisia, said she was drawn to Penn State Law for the clinic’s international reputation. She learned about the clinic through the law school’s international alumni network. She welcomed the opportunity to educate police on immigration law.
“It was a training for police, but also a learning experience for us, not only with the substance of the material, but as far as how to prepare and deliver a presentation on immigration law,” said Dhaouadi, who earned her law degree in Tunisia prior to completing a master’s degree in international law in France.
“I wanted to be involved in a project that has this type of objective toward the community, helping people who are vulnerable and who need this type of legal help,” she said. “This project goes beyond the theoretical knowledge of law and helps you have a more practical view of the legal profession.”
For Bennett, who completed a dual undergrad degree in criminology and Spanish prior to Penn State Law, she was thrilled to join the CIRC team and to work with Wadhia.
“Dean Wadhia is such a great mentor and role model as far as helping you think about your career path,” Bennett said. “She does so much with the community and the school and is also so open to students. Anytime I have a question about anything, from school to jobs, she’s made herself available.”
Teaching the essentials of immigration law to police helped Bennett learn how to take complex research and communicate a distilled version of it to clients – in this case, police officers who know the law but don’t necessarily study immigration law in fine detail.
“The training encompassed a lot of audience engagement, so we were doing examples of police contacts, allowing for questions,” she said. “The officers asked a lot of great questions. We had very engaging discussions about how the police are there to serve everyone. Regardless of immigration status, no one should be afraid to call the police.”
A strong town and gown partnership
For Chief Gardner, the policy has proven to be an important aspect of anti-biased policing.
“I believe our partnership with the clinic has provided our officers with a greater awareness and understanding of the law and the issues surrounding immigrants’ rights,” Gardner said. “Additionally, the broader message we wish to convey is that all persons in our community are deserving of unbiased policing practices, regardless of immigration status, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.”
“I've told Dean Wadhia on many occasions how thoroughly impressed I have been with the clinic students I have had the privilege of working with,” he added. “I have found the students to be eager, caring, dedicated and passionate about their chosen career path and believe many of them are destined to do great things.”
Fountaine said that since 2016, the collaboration between State College and the Center for Immigrants Rights Clinic has been one of the Borough’s most important partnerships.
“This collaboration has been especially meaningful for the State College Police Department,” Fountaine said. “As a result of Dean Wadhia’s leadership, and the work of the students, State College has advanced its goal to address equity and inclusion and being a welcoming community for all. We are looking forward to continuing this collaboration and working together in a strong town and gown partnership.”