Transforming Immigration Law & the Lives of New Americans
The First 10 Years of Minnesota Law’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans
Under a unique collaborative model, students in the James H. Binger Center for New Americans’ clinics work with faculty and nonprofit and law firm partners to gain first-hand legal education experience in representing non-citizens, while developing skills in client interviewing, legal writing, oral advocacy, and case strategy.
The Center’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic pursues litigation to improve U.S. immigration law in the federal courts. Its Detainee Rights Clinic defends indigent non-citizens held in federal detention. The Immigration and Human Rights Clinic represents asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their home countries. The Rural Immigrant Access Clinic offers legal assistance to immigrants in rural communities. The Education and Outreach program informs non-citizens of their rights and trains lawyers to provide pro bono legal services.
Former Center faculty director Benjamin Casper ’97 had a modest vision of raising $150,000 to create what he described as “an ‘adjunct appellate clinic on steroids’ that would operate collaboratively with immigration nonprofits and law firms.” Then, in 2012, the Robina Foundation gave the Law School the opportunity to pursue this vision with a $4.5 million pilot grant to create a Center for New Americans, the only one of its kind at any law school in the country. “I was more than happy to be part of that,” Casper says. The Center launched as a four-year pilot in 2013.
In 2017, the Law School received an additional $25 million endowment from the Robina Foundation — the largest philanthropic gift in the Law School’s history — to provide permanent financial support for the newly named James H. Binger Center for New Americans.
From the beginning, the Center was conceived as a unique Law School collaboration with three law firm partners — Dorsey & Whitney, Faegre Drinker, and Robins Kaplan — and three nonprofit partners — the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and The Advocates for Human Rights.
As the Center marks its 10th anniversary, Casper and others reflect on how it has affected immigration law and expanded the community of advocates who represent non-citizens.
Casper takes pride in the high-profile cases students have helped handle during the Binger Center’s first 10 years, especially a milestone win at the U.S. Supreme Court.
In that case, Mellouli v. Holder, the court’s 2015 decision precluded deportation of thousands of legal residents with low-level drug convictions. That victory, just two years after the Clinic’s creation, offered early “proof of concept” for a unique program designed to transform immigration policy.
Among other landmark results, Center students and partners in 2017 helped block deportation of the “Somali 92.” Last year, in Jasso Arangure v. Garland, the Sixth Circuit Court — in a case argued by a former Center student, now the Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic’s director — issued a ruling protecting non-citizens from repeated removal actions.
What stands out more for Casper, though, is that these and other accomplishments have come against a backdrop of extraordinary challenges, from simply launching the Center to reacting to sudden shifts in immigration policy to keeping students at the forefront of advocacy efforts during a pandemic.
“I’m particularly proud that we’ve succeeded the way we have given the obstacles so many of our students and faculty and partners have faced,” Casper said. “We’ve built up a uniquely impactful program like no other in the United States. There’s no law school that has an integrated, collaborative, multi-clinic immigration program that, as part of its mission, systematically keeps its graduates engaged in the clinical program as faculty and adjunct faculty.”
The Center’s success is due in large part, Casper said, to its home at the Law School and in the Twin Cities. “The advocacy community here is more tightly knit than in larger metropolitan areas, and diaspora refugee populations, such as the Hmong and Somali, comprise much of the state’s non-citizen population,” he says. “The Binger Center was the right project in the right place.” he said
Casper, who left the Law School in September 2022, says he is most proud that the Center’s influence continues to grow as graduates do pro bono immigration work and move into leadership positions at the Center and in immigration advocacy organizations locally, around the U.S., and in other countries.
“The main accomplishment to me is not how we have changed the law in individual cases so far,” Casper says. “It’s how we have proven our original vision — that by operating collaboratively the law school could change an entire advocacy community in a unique way that would give generation after generation of our graduates unrivaled opportunities to lead transformative changes in immigration law. It’s the multiplying effect, expanding our longer-term impact through uncertain times with our students and our graduates in the lead. This is what has already made the Binger Center the premier immigration clinical program in the country, and guarantees it will be an even more extraordinary force for change ten and 20 years from now.”
The legal implications of the Binger Center's efforts go well beyond court rulings and policy changes, says Stephen Meili, the James H. Michael Chair in International Human Rights Law, the Law School’s assistant dean for clinical education, and co-director of the Center’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Students in that clinic have helped asylum seekers and trafficking survivors from more than a dozen countries obtain asylum or other protections in immigration and appellate courts.
“It’s had an impact of saving lives, because our students have helped non-citizens who would otherwise not have had representation remain in the United States and not be sent back to countries where they would be subjected to torture, rape, or other forms of persecution,” Meili says. “That’s not in a sense affecting the law but it’s having a real impact on individuals, which I think is very significant and extremely rewarding for students.”
The life-and-death stakes in some cases can be difficult emotionally for students and Center partners, especially when cases go against them. “While it comes with great rewards, it also comes with great anxiety,” Meili says.
While the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic had operated at the Law School for a couple of decades before the Binger Center’s creation, Meili says the Binger Center introduced an unprecedented approach to immigration and immigrant rights. “What made and makes the Binger Center unique is the ability to approach the immigration issue and the rights of immigrants in a multifaceted way, in terms of the rights of detainees, in terms of litigation over immigrant rights more generally, and continuing to work on behalf of asylum seekers,” Meili says. “It’s a scope and a breadth of representation that’s unprecedented around the country.”
Working together, students at the Center and others in the immigrant rights community have to stay nimble to respond to changes in governmental policies that restrict immigrant rights, Meili said.
While immigration law is largely fixed because of the lack of comprehensive reform, what makes it an ever-changing field is “the government’s ingenuity in restricting the rights of immigrants,” he says.
The students, fellows, and faculty in the Binger Center’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic (FILC) have helped secure victories that have benefited countless individuals, according to director Nadia Anguiano ’17.
Anguiano made a career transition from engineering, enrolling at the Law School largely because of the opportunity FILC offered. After clerking for two federal judges after graduation, Anguiano returned as a FILC fellow in 2019.
She was named associate clinical professor of law and the FILC director in February 2023. An immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico as a child, Anguiano says what she’s doing now is “the most meaningful job in the world.”
FILC has made its mark in cases that involve a wide range of issues, from protecting the rights of asylum seekers to ensuring that immigration law adjudicators do not unlawfully expand removal grounds based on criminal convictions.
“We’ve set favorable precedent at the Supreme Court and circuit courts that impacts hundreds of individuals,” Anguiano says. “We have fought to ensure that removal proceedings adhere to basic due process requirements. By using litigation to push back on unlawful actions by the executive branch, we have made a really a big impact.”
In Jasso Arangure v. Garland, Anguiano and FILC students last year helped win a decisive second victory from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a key procedural ruling that allowed a client to reunite with family in the United States. The decision protects others from unlawful repeated removal actions, said Anguiano, who argued the case before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit.
Anguiano’s two years as a clinic student were empowering as students were at the forefront of an immersive and intense experience of developing cases with clients and advocating on their behalf.
“It gave me the space to do the values-driven work that I came to law school to do,” Anguiano says. “That work is ultimately about ensuring that every person has the right to live with freedom and dignity. The Binger Center nurtured those values and more importantly taught me how to channel them into impactful work.”
While the Binger Center has had a wide-ranging influence on key issues in immigration law in its first ten years, executive director Sarah Brenes also appreciates how it has shaped students who go on to work immigration law and expanded the ranks of those practicing immigration law.
Brenes was named to lead the Center’s operations and strategic planning for its collaborative model in August 2022. She had worked closely with students and faculty at the Center since its founding, having previously directed the Refugee and Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.
“The Center has done a phenomenal job in shaping a new generation of immigration lawyers and lawyers who are connected to immigration law,” Brenes says. “Binger Center alums have a deeper appreciation for the immigrant experience that they are taking into their legal careers wherever they land.”
Center students joined law firm and nonprofit partners to go to the airport to assist refugees affected by the travel ban President Trump’s administration imposed in 2017, Brenes said. Center students and Law School graduates also helped work on class-action litigation that led to an order blocking deportation of the “Somali 92,” who were forced to stay on a plane for two days before authorities returned them to the United States.
“It’s a transformational transition that students have, moving from being a student and a learner to being in the driver’s seat and taking on the role and responsibility of being a partner with the client as their attorney-advocate,” Brenes says. “We balance that by being there as a safety net to help them navigate cases, but gradually work toward removing the training wheels so that they are ready to hit the ground running once they graduate.”
Under the Constitution, immigration detention is a civil procedure that is not supposed to be used as punishment, according to Linus Chan, James H. Binger Professor of Clinical Law and director of the Center’s Detainee Rights Clinic.
Yet the Department of Homeland Security contracts with jails and prisons to hold detainees. Chan says, “In detainment, you’re in a cage where someone is controlling what you eat, when you sleep, where you go, whether you can read, where you can exercise, every aspect of what it means to be free.”
Getting someone out of detention, with its additional implications for mental and social well-being, clearly makes a profound difference in that person’s life, Chan says. “The overall goal is to help people become free and able to stay in the United States.” Chan also works to ensure that the clinic makes an impact even when it does not win. He wants clients to feel like they have autonomy and agency in a system designed to take those away. He also wants students to feel that they have had a positive effect on the client regardless of the outcome.
Chan leads the only law school clinic he knows of that exclusively represents detained people. But the clinic is just one part of the process, he said, acknowledging family members who may travel far to testify and detained people who are willing to discuss, in front of strangers, terrible things they have experienced.
Chan is pleased that the clinic’s efforts on behalf of detainees helped prompt Hennepin and Ramsey counties to give grants to nonprofit partners to represent detained people. Similarly, the volunteer network of lawyers the Center and law firm partners helped coordinate in response to the Trump administration’s travel bans has grown into what is now the Immigration Court Observation Project based at The Advocates for Human Rights.
While the vision of the Center is to impact immigration law, Chan focuses more on its vision of creating a community with a sustainable, generative impact.
“What we’re most proud of is the people and building a community that is much more of a resilient kind of space,” he says.
John Keller, then executive director at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and Casper had the idea for a center for nearly a decade before the Binger Center launched in 2013, Keller said.
That idea stemmed from adoption of the Patriot Act and other legislation that resulted in further erosion of the rights of non-citizens, said Keller, who now is Minnesota’s Chief Deputy Attorney General. The times called for a new entity with attorneys, law firms, and nonprofits, grounded in high-volume, high-impact practice in immigration. The entity would benefit from the youth and energy of law students and a commitment to the long-game of advocating for greater fairness in the interpretation of laws related to non-citizens, Keller said.
“The fact that we’re talking ten years later is proof that we were effective and are making important contributions in the Midwest, the Eighth Circuit, and also in key cases across the country,” Keller says.
Keller cited the rapid mobilization in early 2017 when Center students and faculty joined with law firm and nonprofit partners to respond to the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. Their combined efforts helped win a temporary nationwide injunction that enabled thousands of immigrants and refugees to return to the United States. It helped reunite Somali Minnesota resident Samira Dahir with her then 4-year-old daughter, Mushkaad, whose previously approved entry as a refugee was blocked under the ban.
“That symbolized one success in those early days, helping to push back on a very mean-spirited and, in my opinion, misdirected exercise of executive power by the Trump administration,” Keller says.
The Center offers students life-changing experiences, Keller says, while the “magic formula” of working with them is that “they keep all of us young and inspired.”
“It is a beacon for law students, a beacon for practitioners to bring forward cases that can make a difference nationwide,” Keller says. “The combination of students, faculty, and partners has truly set this up as a premier place, if notthe premier place, for law students who are passionate about immigration.”