On June 18, 49 immigrants, refugees, and asylees from 26 countries took the Oath of Allegiance in Westminster Hall, becoming U.S. citizens.

On June 18, 49 immigrants, refugees, and asylees from 26 countries took the Oath of Allegiance in Westminster Hall, becoming U.S. citizens.

In June, I had the tremendous honor of speaking during a naturalization ceremony held on campus for 49 new U.S. citizens. The ceremony coincided with World Refugee Week, and it was especially gratifying that among those taking their Oath of Allegiance that day were 21 refugees and asylees — men and women who have found a home in this country after fleeing persecution in their own. 

Among the asylees was Gashaw Kibret, whose criticisms of his native Ethiopia would cost him not only his career as a diplomat but also, he had reason to fear, his freedom. Working at the Ethiopian Embassy in India, he’d given a frank account to colleagues of a monthlong visit back home, where he saw out-of-control inflation as the country’s economy surged. What we might consider an innocuous assessment, the Ethiopian ambassador considered anti-government. Mr. Kibret’s penalty was to be returned to Ethiopia and, most likely, jailed.

Instead, he came to the U.S. and immediately began working with lawyers to petition for asylee status. The petition was successful, and as soon as Mr. Kibret was eligible to apply for citizenship, he did. When asked if he felt American, he said, “since day 1.” Day 1 was, in fact, July 3, 2012. Mr. Kibret spent his second night in America watching fireworks over the U.S. Capitol, the same way he’s celebrated every Independence Day since.

The naturalization ceremony we hosted with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services threw into stark relief the diversity of those who seek safety, freedom, and opportunity in our country. In Westminster Hall that day were people from 26 nations around the world, some here to escape violence, persecution, or poverty, some to be united with family, and some to realize dreams that would be impossible virtually anywhere else.

In the days after the ceremony, Luana Colloca, MD, PhD, MS, wrote to tell me that she had just taken her own Oath of Allegiance. Born, raised, and educated in Italy, Dr. Colloca came to the U.S. as a senior research fellow with the National Institutes of Health. She gained permanent residency on an EB-1 visa — yes, that’s the “genius” visa — to continue her work in pain modulation. Now at the School of Nursing, she says that her research on using placebo effects as a way to reduce health care’s reliance on addictive opioids squares with America’s priorities, and that she’s proud to contribute to this country as both a scientist and a citizen.

Of course, every immigrant’s story is different. At the naturalization ceremony, I shared the immigration story of my own parents, Max and Rose, who came to America from Ukraine, after tens of thousands of Jews were brutally massacred in massive pogroms there. I recounted how my parents found in Chicago a close community of fellow Jews exiled from Eastern Europe, those seeking refuge from tyranny, and how that community actively nurtured the American Dream.

There’s no question that this country now has a humanitarian crisis at its borders. Immigrants, arriving both legally and illegally, face increasingly restrictive immigration and asylum policies, and those who violate these policies face increasingly harsh consequences for doing so.

Of course, the humanitarian crisis isn’t contained to America’s border states. In Maryland, there are thousands of immigrants in deportation proceedings who need legal representation but aren’t guaranteed it under the Constitution, as deportation is typically a civil, rather than a criminal, process. The Carey School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, directed since 2004 by Maureen Sweeney, JD, has stepped into the breach.

With funding from UMB and the nonprofit Open Society Institute, the clinic expanded this year, hiring staff attorney Gabriela Kahrl, JD, and increasing the number of clients it’s able to represent in immigration court. Securing this representation is critical: According to a 2017 report, only 19 percent of Baltimore’s detained immigrants who were in removal proceedings had access to an attorney at any point during their case, and yet those with attorney representation were four times more likely to win a favorable judgment.

Social work students serve at the clinic alongside their law school peers, helping clients navigate day-to-day challenges, made more complex by their noncitizen status, and working with asylees who must recount — and, in so doing, relive — the trauma and fear that impelled them to seek safety and freedom in America.

But the Immigration Clinic aims to do more than simply expand its own caseload. Ultimately, the plan is to establish a statewide legal defense fund so that no immigrant detained in Maryland would have to face an immigration judge without legal representation. This spring, with significant advocacy by Ms. Kahrl and the Immigration Clinic, Montgomery County created its own legal defense fund for residents facing deportation, joining Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, and a growing number of jurisdictions nationwide affirming that undocumented immigrants, like criminal defendants, deserve counsel even if they’re unable to afford an attorney.

A second priority advanced by the clinic’s expansion is to secure pro bono counsel for detained immigrants at their bond hearings. This representation, too, is essential, because immigrants awaiting their court proceedings while in detention are far less likely to mount a successful defense than those who are out on bond. 

With U.S. immigration courts chronically underfunded and with more restrictive federal rules on how immigration judges may close the cases before them, the nationwide backlog of cases hit 714,000 this spring. That’s 714,000 people who deserve to have their cases heard and deserve counsel to argue those cases compellingly. This is what Maryland Carey Law’s Immigration Clinic is fighting for: an assurance that each of us, immigrant or not, deserves access to justice; that each of us deserves due process. 

After all, that’s the dream of America, the dream that, every year, draws so many men, women, and children to this country: that everyone here is treated fairly, humanely, and with dignity, even the most vulnerable among us. 

For more information on Maryland Carey Law’s Immigration Clinic or to support its work, please contact Shara Boonshaft at sboonshaft@law.umaryland.edu or 410-706-1842.


Jay A. Perman, MD