By Tara Djukanovic ’24

The meaning of community has always been difficult for me to nail down.

Growing up in an immigrant family in Iowa, my community often felt limited to my immediate family—and particularly in times of need and stress, it felt like my part of the world became invisible to everyone else. When my non-verbal and disabled brother, Boris, was hospitalized after a clear case of abuse and neglect by a child-care institution, it felt like no one outside of our family was outraged on his behalf. And afterwards, when Boris was ultimately denied justice in the legal system, I felt shocked into silence. It is a terrible thing to feel voiceless—but it is almost unbearable to feel alone. On that day, it became clear to me that I wanted to advocate for others. However, for me, my mission went beyond wanting to become an immigration attorney: I wanted to make sure that for every client and community I worked with, that the people my work centered on knew that they were cared for, and that there was always someone who would fight for them even when the justice system was determined to make them feel otherwise.

It was because of this commitment that I joined the Harvard Law School Crimmigration Clinic in the Fall of 2022—and why I haven’t left since. My first week in the clinic I was assigned to a First Circuit Case. The case was both complex and infuriating: my client had come into the country as a minor and was eligible to adjust his status to become a legal permanent resident. However, after he was arrested and put in immigration detention, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to allow him to attend his own criminal proceedings for nearly three years, effectively leaving him voiceless and denying him a chance to defend himself. Consequently, immigration adjudicators in his case denied our client immigration relief based solely on the pending charge that he never had a chance to respond to—resulting in his eventual deportation from the country he’s called home since he was a child.

The case itself was a rollercoaster. After several motions, an opening brief, and a reply brief, I had spent countless hours knee-deep in First Circuit case law—and countless hours ranting about the unjustness of the immigration system to anyone who would listen. My clinical instructor, Tiffany Lieu, became one of my largest confidants and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. It was through her that I learned how to communicate how horrifyingly absurd the facts of our case were through legal arguments and research, and it was through her that I learned how to honor my client’s humanity in a system that at times, seemed determined to ignore it. 

My journey with the clinic and my client culminated this semester, when I had the honor of arguing the case before the First Circuit. Although I was beyond anxious, it felt powerful to verbalize the prejudicial ways that my client had been treated before the Court, fighting not just for him, but for all immigrants who had been unfairly denied relief on a charge they have never had their day in court on. The bedrock of the United States judicial system—that persons should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, that they be given a fair shot to address the charges against them—had been violated in this case. To be the vehicle where the judicial system had to face what had happened to my client, and listen to the story that he had been denied a chance to tell, was both a privilege and an honor.

But as exhilarating as the oral argument was, nothing compared to the joy that came afterwards. The clinic community had rallied around for my client and I: rows in the courtroom were filled with students who had taken time to moot me and were now making the trek to Boston to support me, videos from a standing-room-only watch party in the clinic circulated around the Teams chat, the kindest messages I’ve ever received came flowing in. However, this experience was fundamentally not about me. Yes, everyone deserves to feel loved and celebrated like I did. But more than that, every client deserves to have a community rally around their cause like ours did for my client.

Clients deserve to be seen, and celebrated, and fought for. They deserve to be told that yes, what happened to you was unjust and enraging—and you have a whole crowd of people who will fight to make it right. Not all clients get that—certainly not in immigration law, where counsel isn’t guaranteed. However, the beauty of the Immigration community at Harvard is that this experience wasn’t limited to my case. It’s through our instructors—Tiffany, Phil, Sabi, Cindy, and Eleni—that there are dozens of students willing to go to bat for hundreds of clients, making sure that they know that if nothing else, there is a team of people that care about them and that will work tirelessly to make sure that their voices are heard in the judicial system.

The word “community” no longer feels elusive to me. The power of the clinical community—one that I have been privileged to call home for the last two years—is in its refusal to let client’s stories be ignored. I have never been so sad to leave a place in my life—but that is a small price to pay for the lessons, confidence, and care that are rooted in the ethos of the clinic, and that I will now carry with me into the rest of my career.

Filed in: Clinical Student Voices

Tags: Class of 2024, Crimmigration Clinic

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