Oct. 3, 2019 - Women wore pearls and long, fancy gowns. Men donned tailored suits. But they all filled a grand ballroom to celebrate and support a University of Houston Law Center program that serves the world’s vulnerable populations.
Proceeds from the 20th Anniversary Arrivals Award gala, held at the Hilton Houston Post Oak on Sept. 26, will help fund UHLC’s Immigration Clinic, which mentors law students as they handle asylum cases on behalf of victims of violence, human trafficking, and genocide.
“Right now it’s a very difficult time for immigrants,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the clinic. “Many people are facing dire circumstances, including family separation, families in detention, people without representation. Families are being ripped apart. So clinics like ours are very crucial especially at this very difficult time.”
The gala featured international cuisine and live performances meant to evoke the immigrant experience, including live-art painting, ballet and opera performed by members of the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera.
It recognized the achievement of three Houston activists — Sima Ladjevardian, originally from Iran, and a Houston attorney and senior advisor to the Beto O’Rourke presidential campaign; Harry Gee, a Chinese-American and managing partner of Gee & Zhang and president of Sister Cities of Houston; and Lynden Rose, who grew up in The Bahamas, earned undergraduate and law degrees at UH, and is the Honorary Consul of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas in Houston.
Also honored were 22 “Beacons of Light,” community leaders in immigration reform or international business relations, or who help underserved diverse populations.
“This event promotes the values of unity, respect, justice and hope,” said Ladjevardian. “When I immigrated to America, it was the unity with my family that allowed me to adapt to this country’s culture, it was unity with my friendly Iranian-Americans that allowed me to maintain our traditions and values, and it was finally with the community at large that propelled me to adopt American values and work with different communities to make a difference.”
The Immigration Clinic, which gets 2,000 to 3,000 inquiries a year, is a free service. The Arrival Awards is the main fundraiser that supports the program, said Gordon Quan, co-chair of the event. It funds scholarships, but also pays to offset costs such as court filing fees.
“Just to file an appeal on a case may be almost $1,000,” he said.
The event also celebrates the legacy of clinic founder Joe Vail, an immigration lawyer, judge and University of Houston professor, who died in 2008. His mission was to ensure that those coming into the country had representation, and that there’d be a cadre of attorneys available to handle the work.
The program “continues to produce outstanding members of the immigration bar,” said Hoffman. “They’re well-versed in the complex and difficult area of immigration law.”
Each year, the clinic takes 25 law students, who work with licensed attorneys to learn legal processes and gain field experience in the courtroom.
Oscar Olszewski, a third-year law student, decided to participate in the clinic because of his experience in the U.S. Marine Corp., where immigrants in his unit told him about the “needlessly complicated” process required to gain citizenship.
“It made me think about immigration as a subject I could pursue and help to give back,” he said. “It’s different from other parts of law because we’re doing this because we want to be protectors.”
The Immigration Clinic attracted Chelsea Klumpp, a second-year student, because she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. “Just reading the memos of what these people have been through, then meeting them in person … It’s very impactful. It’s beyond just case books.”
The clinic represents migrants who arrive in the United States “completely ignorant” of the immigration system, said Raed Gonzalez, a Houston immigration lawyer. Much of the work, he said, involves helping people who otherwise would not have a voice to navigate a complex system so they can live and work in the United States.
Some cases involve reuniting families, working with husbands or wives to gain visas for spouses and children. In others, the stakes are higher: Taking on asylum cases for migrants persecuted in their home countries can save lives.
“That is what the clinic is about” Gonzalez said, “helping those people.”
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