University of Pittsburgh

Finding the Right Door: For One Pitt Law Graduate, Immigration Law Has Become An Absorbing Cause

Publish Date/Time: 
August 14, 2014

Molly! Masich, '14, works with an Immigration Law Clinic client who has recently been granted asylum.

A version of this article previously appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the Pitt Law Magazine. Words by Christine H. O’Toole

United States’ Senate passage of a new immigration law in June punctuated a historic quarter century: the United States has received more immigrants in the past 25 years than at any previous period of its history. These newcomers confront daunting requirements for visas and work permits; undocumented immigrants may also be subjected to largescale immigration roundups, the denial of due process in deportation proceedings, and abusive detention conditions. As a result, efforts to guarantee immigrants’ basic rights and help them navigate paths to citizenship have grown. For one Pitt Law graduate, immigration law grew to become an absorbing cause.

Molly! Masich, ‘14, spent the summers of 2012 and 2013 working with non-profit organizations, helping immigrants find ways to achieve permanent legal status. Her most recent experience was a stint in the Legal Services for Immigrants and Internationals department of Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS), which provides legal help as well as humanitarian aid for immigrants and refugees in Pittsburgh. She took responsibility for 57 cases, contacting nearly 150 individuals—many of whom speak limited English—about services provided by Jewish Family and Children’s Services. A public interest scholarship funded through Pitt Law student fundraising efforts of the Pitt Legal Income Sharing Foundation (PLISF) allowed her to take the post. Over the course of the last academic year, PLISF raised $27,000 and provided 14 full scholarships to students working in non-paid positions.

For Masich, finding the relief for immigrants seeking to enter or remain in the country is painstaking and rewarding task. “Everything about immigration is onerous,” she observes. “And if you make something hard, it encourages deceit.”

Born on the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona, Masich’s lifelong interest in immigration issues stems from having worked to provide social services to at risk immigrants’ before matriculating at Pitt Law. After a previous public interest legal internship and her experience in the three-year old immigration law clinic directed by Prof. Sheila Vélez Martínez, that grew into a passion. Student work on JFCS’s most complex cases frees the non-profit’s limited staff to handle others. “We take referrals for criminal immigration cases. People who have a criminal history have burdensome issues,” she explains. Each semester, eight to ten students tackle the cases that other non-profits will not touch. In the spring 2013 semester, Vélez Martínez estimates that students performed 1,600 hours of pro bono work, with good results. The clinic has won all of the cases it has shouldered since its founding in 2010.

Observing the difficulties clients face has helped Masich pinpoint gaps in their understanding of their rights.

“Often, immigrants make their first contact with the legal system through traffic violations, particularly DUI cases,” she explains. “A DUI violation can affect immigrants’ eligibility for immigration reliefs, but many aren’t aware of that penalty until after the fact.” While working for JFCS, Masich also completed a separate, for-credit externship with Vélez Martínez, researching the problem for a presentation to faith-based organizations and non-profits that serve the local immigrant community.

“One of the changes in the bill, as proposed right now, is to include a third DUI conviction as a ground for inadmissibility to the U.S.,” says Vélez Martínez of the immigration bill passed by the Senate June 28, 2013. “Members of the immigrant community in Pittsburgh have identified this as an issue. We’re creating a legal perspective on the immigration consequences, and working with criminal law attorneys, social activists and health professionals to address this problem from a holistic perspective.”

The current Senate proposes a path to citizenship in 13 years for adults (five years for youth). Masich says that time frame is a significant improvement. “Thirteen years is fast. Right now, it can take up to 20 years, depending on what country you’re from. That doesn’t encourage anyone to follow the laws.”

Vélez Martínez agrees that immigrants will require continued legal assistance to reach citizenship. “The proposed process is complicated. It’s costly. It has obstacles. We have agreed that about nine million people are undocumented and part of our economy. We’re going to let them stay, but will make it very difficult. The strength of the bill is that it recognizes that we have to deal with immigration reform in a comprehensive fashion. And it will finally allow immigrants to travel abroad to visit their families.”

Fast Fact: Pennsylvania was home to 756,410 immigrants in 2011, according to the American Immigration Council, with over 52 percent of them already naturalized citizens. Unauthorized immigrants comprised 1.3 percent, or 160,00 residents, in 2011. That number includes just over 3,000 refugees resettled by the U.S. Department of State within the Commonwealth, placing it fourth after Texas, California and New York. Nationals of Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq made up almost three-quarters of the refugee arrivals nationally and in Pennsylvania.

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