The Border Justice Initiative Launches its Inaugural Border Justice Fellowship

October 6, 2022

jorge rodriguez, adult hispanic man standing in front of a mural

The UNM School of Law has launched its inaugural Border Justice Fellowship Program, a key component of the school’s Border Justice Initiative focused on ensuring the legal system’s just treatment of immigrants at the U.S. southern border. Jorge Rodriguez, a recent UNM School of Law graduate and new lawyer, was selected to serve as the program’s first fellow and will be placed at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas. The two-year Border  Justice Fellowship is the result of a partnership between the UNM School of Law and the Jacqueline Marie Leaffer Foundation. Professor April Land calls the Fellowship an “excellent example of a public-private partnership for the benefit of those in greatest need.” She explains, “We are excited to have the chance to expand the quantity and quality of legal services to people in underserved immigrant communities as a result of the generous donation of the JML Foundation, the hard work and commitment of our graduates who work and supervise in this area, and the support of our law school community.”   

Meet our Fellow

Jorge Rodriguez, (’22) is the Initiative’s first Border Justice Fellow.  The grandson of Braceros and immigrants, Jorge comes from Salem, a small colonia in southern New Mexico, where he worked in the surrounding agricultural fields and processing plants until he was 24 years old. A first-generation college student, Jorge felt a strong need to return to his community, “As for many people, the events of 2016 hit close to home. I was in a graduate program, but I felt I needed to be close to family and community. I returned home and started working in the fields, simultaneously trying to organize and bring ‘know your rights’ trainings to my community. As an organizer, I learned and experienced the power of community. My work and time with my community emphasized the need for direct legal representation.  Now I can help respond to that need.”

Working Together with Las Americas

Jorge will be working with other attorneys at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, providing immigration legal assistance to people displaced and terrorized by human trafficking or religious, political, ethnic, or gender-based persecution and abuse. Jorge is eager to begin work because, as he said, “Every person deserves to live with dignity and respect. Like most issues, immigration is a complex topic; however, the approach to addressing the issues is straightforward. Immigration is a humanitarian issue and should be approached through a humanitarian centered perspective.” Alison Cimino, a community immigration attorney in private practice who mentors and teaches students including Jorge, said, “There is a huge and ongoing demand for immigration attorneys. Jorge's compassion and interest in immigrants and their struggles began before he went to law school. This fellowship will allow him to represent the population closest to his heart as he gains practice experience.”

Our Unique Model

The Border Justice Initiative’s fellowship model is innovative in that it allows faculty and adjuncts at the School of Law to continue to provide some of the mentorship and supervision, which, in turn, allows the host organization to continue its focus on addressing the legal issues of immigrants. “We will continue to support and mentor Jorge in conjunction with his supervisors at Las Americas, while he learns to perfect his craft and become a community leader and mentor to students following his path,” added Ann Delpha, Adjunct Professor and Staff Attorney for the Initiative.

Serving Immigrants, Today and into the Future

The Border Justice Initiative was created in 2019, through a coordinated effort between the Jacqueline Marie Leaffer Foundation and the School of Law, in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border that has continued to escalate.  The Initiative provides hands-on, real-time, service-learning opportunities through classes and externships for UNM law students interested in immigration law, with a goal of ensuring the legal system’s just treatment of immigrants at our southern border, with a particular focus on children and families. Additionally, the Initiative creates a border justice pipeline from school to the border and beyond.  April Land explained the initiative’s future work, “We plan to create an ongoing pipeline of capable and inspired attorneys working with us and through us to ensure immigrants have access to legal services and opportunities,” she added.  Jorge Rodriguez is very happy to be part of the pipeline. “I came to law school with goal of becoming an immigration attorney and returning to my community. Throughout my three years at UNM I stayed true to my commitment and actively pursued mentorship and opportunities to achieve my goal. Law school is unique for everyone; however, UNM provides the environment to create your own path.”