Rutgers Law School recently initiated a new fellowship in which two newly minted attorneys receive two years of intense training representing New Jersey residents detained across the country in court. Priscila D. Abraham and Medha Venugopal, the inaugural fellows, have both accepted positions as staff attorneys upon the completion of their fellowships this fall.
In 2018, Rutgers Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic received a grant from the State of New Jersey through the Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative (DDDI) to provide representation to detained immigrants in the state. Funding has increased significantly since then and, in 2020, the clinic expanded with the establishment of the Detention Fellowship. Under the supervision of clinic staff attorneys, they draft declarations, gather letters of support, conduct legal research, draft briefs, and represent their clients in hearings for immigration relief or release from detention.
“The idea was to ease each fellow into taking on a full caseload, to prepare them to hit the ground running as staff attorneys after the fellowship,” says Anju Gupta, associate dean for clinical education, professor of law and Judge Chester J. Straub Scholar, and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic. “So far, it feels like we've been successful, as our first two fellows have not only enriched our own program but have accepted staff positions in immigrant representation work for when their fellowship ends this fall.”
Priscila D. Abraham (RLAW’20) became interested in immigration law through firsthand experience. The daughter of immigrants, she witnessed family and friends navigate the complicated and often scary process of removal proceedings and decided from the beginning to dedicate her career to helping this population. “I started doing some community organizing in college, and that’s where I was really exposed to immigration law and its impact on people’s lives,” she says. She came to Rutgers Law School with the intention of working in immigrants’ rights and worked in the clinic as a student before applying for the post-grad fellowship, hoping it would be the bridge she needed between graduating law school and working as a staff attorney.
Abraham was confident in her writing skills when she started her fellowship, but she needed to overcome personal fears related to speaking in court. “When working in immigration law, it is incredibly important to learn to be a strong oral advocate,” she says, adding that she’s grown to love appearing in court on behalf of her clients. “It was the level of training that I really needed,” she says, recalling hours spent practicing with her mentors. “Now, I find myself providing mentorship to our interns, which is a major benefit of this structure—it allows for mentorship to continue.”
The skills Abraham honed during her fellowship have landed her a job as a staff attorney at the American Friends Service Committee’s detention program, one of four DDDI partners that serves the same client pool.
“Doctors have residency between graduating medical school and beginning their practice, but lawyers miss out on that in-between time,” she says. “The fellowship has provided the training I need to be the best lawyer I can be and provide the best advocacy for my clients. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
Medha Venugopal (RLAW '20) the frustration and anxiety that accompanies the path to citizenship in the United States. The Indian citizen immigrated from Dubai with her mother and sister in 2008. Since then, she’s changed her visa status three times, received a green card in 2014, and finally became a U.S. citizen in 2021. “It was a really long process fraught with a lot of stress,” she says. “Even as a teenager, I recognized that we came here with the privileges of knowing the language and having financial resources. I went to law school to help those who don’t have our resources as they navigate this complex process.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Venugopal applied for Rutgers Law School’s Detention Fellowship to gain courtroom experience. “I was scared of public speaking, but it was not an option for me to sit back and have someone else do the talking,” she says. As a fellow, Venugopal gained significant experience working with clients, appearing in court, and even getting a client released from detention despite a few unfavorable facts. “Today, I love going to court,” she says, attributing her new passion to the mentorship she received as a fellow. “Everyone there helped me work on the type of cases I was most interested in and be a version of myself I didn’t think I’d be able to be.”
Venugopal will have many opportunities to put her skills to use when she starts a new position this fall as a staff attorney at Catholic Charities’ unaccompanied minors division in New York City. She will represent detained individuals who came to the U.S. under the age of 21 without the accompaniment of an adult as they seek legal status in the U.S. “I really understood how much I grew over the past two years when I interviewed for this position,” Venugopal says. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without the environment created at the fellowship.”