Professor Geoffrey Heeren – Defending Human Rights

In light of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and the recent Presidential campaign, Immigration Law has taken center stage in national news coverage. As founder and director of the Valparaiso University Law School Immigration Clinic, Professor Geoffrey Heeren guides his students through complex cases that often explore the human side of law, and defends the rights of immigrants.

Professor Heeren, named the Michael and Dianne Swygert Teaching Fellow, divides his time between practicing immigration law and teaching it, but he exudes the most passion for teaching. “I’m really practicing through my students,” said Heeren, who, in addition to teaching, also writes and speaks extensively on immigration law. “My students are the ones who are practicing, and I’m helping them to do that. They are doing exceptional work at a very high level; the type of work done by the very best immigration lawyers in the country. We’ve had a lot of impressive achievements, including victories last year in multiple high-stakes cases where people’s lives were on the line, where they feared persecution. These are very complicated matters,” Heeren added.

Professor Heeren at the Valparaiso University Law Clinic

Professor Heeren at the Valparaiso University Law Clinic

Immigration Clinic students represent immigrants with claims grounded in human rights and domestic and international law through legal research and writing, interviewing and counseling clients, and more. Through the clinic, students also serve as lead counsel for asylum seekers, torture survivors, crime victims, abused and abandoned immigrant children, and people facing deportation as a result of immigration infractions.

Some of the cases clinic students handled over the last year were heart-wrenching: securing asylum for a Tanzanian woman persecuted for being a lesbian; obtaining a green card for a Salvadoran youth who had been abused and neglected; and securing asylum for a Rwandan woman persecuted because of her testimony at a trial.

Heeren described one case that had been ongoing for eight years. In 2013, a Ukrainian refugee represented by the Valparaiso University Immigration Clinic won his case before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. “Our client had come to the United States as a child and struggled adjusting to life here,” Heeren said.  “He had minor shoplifting charges as a kid. He grew up and went to Canada on business, and coming back to the United States he was put into deportation as a result of his childhood shoplifting. It was a complicated case and we prevailed in the Seventh Circuit, which strongly agreed with us and criticized the government for the way it analyzed the case.” After they won on appeal, the case was sent back for a new hearing. At that point, Heeren’s students demonstrated that their client had done positive things with his life, had cared for his parents, and had redeemed himself as a person.

That was a very meaningful experience for my students to be a part of—helping to show how this gentleman was a human being who meant something to his family. We won on multiple levels—on a complex legal argument and on a very human level where we presented him as a whole human being to the court.

Heeren’s passion for teaching was ignited when he taught asylum law at the University of Chicago. “I really loved the experience of working with students. I feel I can vicariously re-experience the world of legal practice through people who are encountering it for the first time,” Heeren said.

Heeren tries to incorporate high profile, relevant news issues and events into his teaching. When President Obama announced his first executive action concerning immigration, Heeren and his students did a series of community outreach events and handled a number of cases that emerged because of those events.

We try to keep our finger on the pulse of what current issues are. This is a country of immigrants and we’re always dealing with immigration issues.

Heeren’s students are seeing the very real side of immigration law and the sometimes painful experience of the human beings affected by it. They are using their legal skills and their compassion to create a better future for their clients.