Catherine Chen

Meet our one of our volunteer attorneys,
Catherine Chen.
Catherine is currently the Liman Public Interest Law Fellow at the MEDICAL-LEGAL PARTNERSHIP FOR CHILDREN IN HAWAII. Her focus is in the complex area of crimmigration. This past year, Catherine volunteered her time to work on an asylum case with The Refugee & Immigration Law Clinic.

What makes you interested in this field?

First is how strongly I feel that the intertwining of criminal and immigration law has created a bad system, with terrible consequences for immigrant families. People don’t realize that very minor convictions can trigger deportation for non-citizens. This includes non-violent crimes where you don’t spend a day in prison because the state court judge decides that the best punishment is probation, or community service, or a drug rehabilitation program. Then the heavy hammer of immigration law can come down and exile you from everything you know.

Second is that it is a very interesting and highly technical legal doctrine, like a maze where the paths keep shifting—even more so than other areas of immigration law. While this is yet another reason why our system is so broken and unfair to immigrants (because, unlike in criminal law, you do not get a free lawyer in deportation proceedings), it also means that I’ve seen the profound difference I can make as an attorney in this field.

What is your typical day working as a Law Fellow with the Medical-Legal Partnership?

The Medical-Legal Partnership is a project of Richardson School of Law and Kōkua Kalihi Valley (KKV) community health center. We provide free direct legal services for patients at KKV, and we also do policy advocacy, rooted in the needs and experiences of our clients. During the pre-COVID times, I split my time between the law school and KKV, and nowadays we are mostly remote. I handle our immigration caseload and tag-team with my colleagues on other legal issues for our immigrant clients. A typical day sees me making a lot of phone calls, writing a lot of emails and letters, and doing a lot of research. Sometimes I have a hearing at Immigration Court or an appointment at USCIS or ICE, but I’d say most lawyering work is done through the computer and phone.

What work have you done at the Medical-Legal Partnership that you are most proud of?

There are a couple of individual case victories that really stand out in my mind. I am most proud of a recent victory in a deportation crimmigration case. When I called the client over the phone to tell her the good news, I heard a joyful scream on the other end of the line. There was another complex vital documents case when, after we finally got the document for an elderly immigrant, her niece emailed me with the phrase “We did it!”, which meant so much to me. Those little moments of victory and joy are the best parts of the job for me.

What was your experience with asylum law before you came to work with The Clinic?

I had some experience with asylum law while in law school. I had asylum clients through two law school clinics (Workers & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Project and Immigration Legal Services), and through volunteer work with the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project and International Refugee Assistance Project.

What was the timeline of your involvement in your asylum case with The Clinic?

I started working with The Clinic right after joining the Medical-Legal Partnership, in September 2019. My client was already in proceedings when I met her. We filed her asylum application in November 2019, and we’ve been working on this case ever since. It’s been really fantastic to work with The Clinic!

Was there anything particularly difficult about your experience representing a Central American family in their asylum case before the Immigration Court and how did you cope with these difficulties?

For me the most difficult is always making clients talk about the worst moments in their life. Asylum cases by definition are going to involve fear and trauma. I try to lessen the trauma for our clients by spending a long time in the beginning explaining the process—what I’m going to ask and why I need to ask it, so they understand and are ready. I actually write out my speech, because over-preparing always helps me cope. I also schedule in wind-down time for myself after interview sessions, because the fears of our clients are real, and as you get to know your client and their story, they can become your fears too.

What advice would you give to attorneys who don't know much about immigration law but would like to volunteer with The Clinic?

I would advise attorneys to just jump right in! Volunteering with The Clinic is a fantastic way to use your abilities as a lawyer to make our community a more just place. So many immigrants have limited English proficiency, varying levels of education and literacy, and no familiarity with the law, but still need to navigate Immigration Court by themselves. There are so many guides and resources on the Internet for attorneys and advocates. And when a quick Google search can’t answer your question, John and Taylor are THE BEST. They have the clients’ best interests in mind always, and they will work with you to meet whatever challenge is thrown your way!