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If you want to go into immigration law, getting hands-on experience is a must. But because of the nature of the work, it can be hard to find meaningful—and safe—opportunities, especially if you want to go abroad.

Here, immigration and human rights law expert Professor Dina Haynes shares important advice for law students looking for hands-on experience in this rewarding field.

Looking up from her desk chair, Dina Haynes could see the sky and olive branches overhead. But it wasn’t because she had a skylight.

It was because she didn’t have a roof.

Her makeshift “office,” made of particle board and situated in the middle of an olive grove, had been set up so Haynes could meet with asylum seekers fleeing violence and human rights atrocities in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Yemen.

It was the summer of 2019, and Haynes was volunteering with an international legal nonprofit operating out of Greece. She trained their lawyers, revised their legal manuals, and shared some best practices for working with people who have experienced trauma, among other things, while also representing refugees in the Greek and EU asylum process.

Haynes, a professor at New England Law | Boston, was also there to assess the opportunity for law students, who are always eager to volunteer their services to immigration law organizations. She has made it a practice to go to the field and work for the organizations she recommends for students, in order to feel confident sending her students (or not).

“I was trying to get an on-the-ground feel for these organizations, so I could advise students on what they were going to face, what to expect, what to look for,” Haynes says. “That is really the only way I can convey to students what it really takes in order to be able to do [the work], and also the only way I can assess whether the organization is everything it claims to be and is in a position to offer a good learning experience for students.”

If you’re a law student seeking hands-on learning opportunities in immigration, here's what you need to know...

Related: Learn more about studying immigration law.

Take Immigration Law Classes First

Before you even start researching immigration law internships or volunteer gigs, take as many immigration law classes as you can, Professor Haynes says.

Immigration law is complex. There's no useful immigration law “in a nutshell.” So the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle the various issues you might encounter out in the real world.  

This knowledge is critical, because people’s lives are often at stake.

Immigration law is complex. People’s lives are often at stake. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.

Know What You’re Signing Up For

Haynes noticed some of her law students, passionate about fighting the injustices they were seeing around the world, would jump into immigration law opportunities without doing their due diligence. Then they’d show up to help nonprofits and be disillusioned by the assignments they received.

“When you talk about humanitarian work or refugee work, the vast majority is not legal. And sometimes the legal work is really boring and not international law at all,” Haynes says. “There’s contract work, or organizations will ask you to review their personnel manual, which is legal, but probably not what [law students] were hoping to do.”

Of course, doing non-legal work is fine too, Haynes says. You can make a huge difference running food in a refugee camp or working the reception desk at a shelter for displaced migrants. That experience certainly contributes to your understanding of the underlying legal issues—but it’s not truly legal experience.

Haynes also notes that it’s important to recognize that these organizations must adapt quickly in an era where immigration laws and policies change every day. So it’s doubly important to research hands-on learning opportunities beforehand and go in with your eyes wide open.

Check If There’s a Supervising Attorney

When investigating an immigration law internship or volunteer opportunity, “the first thing to do is just to ask who the supervising attorney is—because then you can find out whether there is a supervising attorney,” Haynes says.

Students who will be working on legal tasks need to make sure there will be a supervising attorney present; otherwise, they could end up engaging in unauthorized practice. (This is still true even overseas!) It’s also helpful to check if the supervising attorney will be on site.

“The other challenge with immigration practice is that it's increasingly done with these remote opportunities, so the student might be in one place, but the lawyer might be in another place physically,” Haynes says. “There's no inherent ethical problem with that, but it just makes nailing down the supervision a little bit harder.”

Make Sure the Legal Work Is Appropriate for Law Students

There are only so many legal tasks law student interns and volunteers are allowed to undertake. In addition to looking for a supervising attorney, you should also make sure your assignments are appropriate for you as a law student.

“The need in immigration law is so monumental that it is tempting to jump in and help people, but students need to remember that they're not licensed to practice, and giving legal advice is not something that a law student can do, ethically,” Haynes warns. “What they can do is be given guidance by a lawyer to do a particular task and then have the lawyer sign off on the validity of that task.”

Haynes says “siloed” tasks, like writing briefs and conducting research, are often a good fit for law students, because a licensed attorney will ultimately review the work, make any necessary changes, and, most importantly, sign off on it. This supporting work may not always involve working directly with clients, but it’s still meaningful.

“If a firm or public interest organization is representing somebody who's going to court on an asylum claim, a law student researching the country conditions in the applicant's home country is absolutely legitimate and really useful,” Haynes says.

Expand Your Horizon with Non-Legal Gigs

So, you’ve done your due diligence, but for whatever reason, you won’t be joining that immigration law nonprofit you researched so thoroughly. That’s okay. Keep looking for related opportunities, even if they’re not technically in immigration law.

“It's really hard to get into international organizations, but getting that experience on the ground is one way, both to network while you're there or see who's operating,” Haynes says.  

For example, a law student could volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières, which only does medical work, and potentially meet folks from other organizations, like ICRC and UNHCR, doing legal work in the same area.

Put Your Safety First

In addition to investigating immigration law organizations themselves, make sure you research the surrounding area and logistics—particularly where your well-being is concerned.

“Don't assume that anybody else is going to look out for your safety,” Haynes says. “Just because somebody's asking you to go somewhere and do something doesn't mean it's a safe or wise thing to do.”

Haynes recommends doing as much research as you can before signing up with an organization or traveling to a new locale. Where will you be staying? Are there any travel advisory warnings in place? Do people feel comfortable walking alone at night—or at all?

“Assess the situation as much as possible before you go, and talk to other people who have been recently,” she says.

Don't assume anybody else is going to look out for your safety. Just because somebody's asking you to go somewhere and do something doesn't mean it's safe or wise.

Look at the Time Commitment

Obviously you’ll want to know how long the organization expects you to stay, so you can figure out your schedule. But also keep in mind that the time commitment can be an indication of the quality of the experience.

“If an organization expects people to come for a week or so, it's usually what I would call ‘voluntourism,’” Haynes says. “The longer they ask you to stay, the more likely it is that they are a legitimate organization that you want to work for.”

Know that It Could Be Hard—Really Hard

Getting real-world immigration law experience abroad is critical in figuring out if you’re ready for what is often a physically and emotionally demanding career. 

“The intangibles are the hardest part to teach,” Haynes says. “A lot of immigration law, especially related to asylum and human trafficking, which is what I mostly do, is also international human rights law… It can be really emotionally draining.”

You can’t grasp the magnitude of these issues until you see them up close—until you’re in a makeshift “office” with no roof meeting with an asylum seeker, traumatized by their passage across the Mediterranean Sea where many people have died.

But despite the difficulties, Haynes says there’s nowhere else she would rather be.

“That's the thing: my happy place is sitting in an olive grove with no bathroom or running water, helping traumatized people,” Haynes says with a wry laugh. “That's what I've done my whole life and that's what I like teaching students to do too.”

Learn more about studying immigration law.