International Clinical Collaboration in Argentina

In November 2012, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic arranged for continuing clinical student Marisa Taney ’13 to work with the University of Buenos Aires and as well as two other amazing organizations, CELS and CAREF, doing great work in refugee law. Read about her experience in her own words below!

“When I chose to participate in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (“HIRC”) my 2L fall, I would never have imagined that I would find myself, a year later, sitting in the office of an NGO in Argentina, discussing policy decision making with Argentine lawyers and explaining U.S. immigration and asylum law to law students at the University of Buenos Aires (“UBA”). Yet last fall, for three weeks in November, that is exactly what I did.

Getting the project off the ground was no easy task. It was the product of compromise, flexibility and hard work on the part of the faculty of HIRC, the heads of the non-profits in Argentina and the administration and faculty of Harvard Law School. First, there were scheduling challenges, since our three-week term in January coincides with Argentina’s summer vacation, meaning that the project would have to take place during Fall term, when I would be taking three additional classes. Second, there was the challenge of familiarizing myself with the history of Argentinian immigration and the evolution of its regulatory scheme governing the same. Third, there were numerous logistical challenges regarding housing, transportation and funding.

Despite these hurdles, by September the project was finalized. I would go to Buenos Aires for three weeks during Fall Term to work with the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (“CELS”) and the Comisión de Apoyo al Refugiado (“CAREF”). While there, my project would be dual-focused, encompassing both a practical and an academic component. On the one hand, I would participate in the legal clinic that the organizations run with the UBA, consulting on cases where my knowledge of U.S. law might be helpful and learning about the clinic’s general operations. At the same time, I would study the new immigration law passed in Argentina in 2003 and evaluate its implementation in the first ten years of its existence. This latter task would culminate in a research paper that would help to focus reforms of immigration law and policy in Argentina. The ultimate goal was to foster a mutually beneficial, collaborative relationship between our respective organizations that would allow for fruitful exchanges of students, resources and information.

Upon arriving in Argentina, I went to CAREF to set my schedule: three days per week I would participate in the clinic, and the other three to four days I would work on the research project and help out on other tasks as needed. I had the opportunity to interview members of the government-run Comisión del Migrante (the commission within the national public defender’s office dedicated to immigrant advocacy), to confer with attorneys in the field, and to speak with numerous immigrants themselves. I attended workshops and trainings for immigrants to inform them of their rights under the new law and engaged in candid discussions about the immigrant experience in Argentina. Through it all, I learned an enormous amount about the region, the politics, and the social implications of being an immigrant in Argentina.

Still, working in Argentina was not without its set of challenges. The first day I was there, the garbage workers had been on strike for days. Rotting garbage lined the streets and obstructed some of the sidewalks. This was not an unbearable inconvenience until day two, when the city flooded due to heavy rains and to the built-up garbage blocking the sewer drains. The buses, with which I was only vaguely familiar, changed their routes to avoid the floating islands of refuse and the streets flooded four feet high. Still, I managed to arrive (20 minutes late) to my first meeting at CELS. When I arrived, however, I was informed that there had been “un apagón”—essentially a blackout—due to the extreme weather. There was no light or computers for our meeting. The meeting was fruitful anyway, and, after hours of navigating the re-routed public transportation, I returned home, thoroughly initiated by Argentina. Twice in the three weeks of my visit, work was stopped due to national protests. We were without power an additional three times.  Miscommunications caused by my lack of familiarity with Argentine legal terms abounded. But all of these obstacles helped to highlight one of my favorite parts of Argentina: the culture. A typical Harvard student, I arrived frantic at CELS when service interruptions to the buses caused me to arrive 25 minutes late to the clinic. But instead of berating me for tardiness, the students laughed, commiserated about the public transportation, offered me some mate, and caught me up on the lecture. During case presentations, the lawyers and interns would pause periodically to ask if I had any questions, and would go to pains to explain banal legal processes if they were unique to Argentina. My peers were as genuinely interested in my experiences in the United States as I was in theirs in Argentina, and they regularly stayed after meetings or class to talk to me or invite me to social events. It was in incredible experience.

By all accounts, the project was a huge success. Not only was it an opportunity for me to learn about another system of immigration law, but it also allowed me to truly engage with a different society and gain multiple perspectives on immigration policy. The geographic and region-specific challenges were different, but the basic issues underlying the work were the same, and the missions of our organizations remarkably parallel. Since returning to the states I have continued to speak with my supervisors and peers in Argentina, collaborating on cases and discussing future opportunities for exchanges. Who knows, maybe I will get to go back!”