Director of immigration law clinic serves community, mentors law students


Photo courtesy of Illinois College of Law

Lauren Aronsson, professor and Immigration Law Clinic Director, talks about her journey into law since graduating from Rice University to serving the community at the UI.

By Jackie Barba, Staff Writer

Lauren Aronson walks through the double glass doors of the Immigration Law Clinic. In her hands, she holds a tea cup and eight files, bursting at the seams with sheets of paper. As she walks, she distributes the files, handing certain ones to students she passes on the way to her office and picking up new ones along the way.

Now holding nine files, she arrives at her office, takes a deep breath and prepares to start another day.

Aronson is a professor in the College of Law and the director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University. The clinic helps those who are in the country without documentation find legal services and also offers hands-on experience for students interested in immigration law.

Despite her passion for her profession today, Aronson shares that in the past she avoided immigration law.

“I actually stayed really far away from immigration law while I was in law school because I thought it would be too sad, too hard of an area,” Aronson said.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

After graduating from the University of Virginia with her law degree, Aronson left school with the feeling that she had made a mistake in attending law school. She said her first job in law came from needing to pay off her student loans.

“I thought, well, I’ll go take this job in this law firm, this fancy New York law firm, where I’ll get paid lots of money, and then I’ll work to pay off my loans” Aronson said. “And then I’ll figure out what I actually want to do.”

But after a few months in her job, the 2008 recession hit, and she did not continue to work with the company she was employed at after the 19-month payroll ended. She took the unexpected time off to study abroad in Spain and learned Spanish while there.

When she came back, she decided to apply for jobs that would utilize her newly-learned language. Of those jobs, she heard back from one — an Immigration Law Clinic at Harvard University.

Aronson dedicated herself to the profession and eventually found her way to the University. Today, she oversees the eight students involved in the Immigration Law Clinic every semester and the work they do to help immigrants in a myriad of legal situations.

“We help immigrants in any part of their legal immigration journey” Aronson said. “So we have clients who have started from nothing, have no status at all, no legal right to be in the country, but then we also are helping people who have green cards apply to become citizens. (It’s) really the whole spectrum of immigration relief.”

In addition to providing undocumented people with legal aid, the clinic also functions as a learning experience for law students.

“So not just the abstract ideas about practicing law and learning the laws themselves but actually applying them.” Aronson said. “So the law clinic exists to, first and foremost, teach law students how to be lawyers but then also to serve the community.”

For Analy Ayala Blanco, a second-year student in Law, the clinic has been a welcome addition to her studies. As an immigrant herself, she said the clinic has provided her with a way to gain firsthand experience in a field she is passionate about.

Ayala Blanco also said that Aronson has served as her role model.

“Professor Aronson devotes herself to the clinic, her students and our clients,” Blanco said. “I know that I can count on her for anything, including non-clinic-related matters. She is someone who I deeply value as a mentor, and I hope to be like her when I am an attorney.”

While the work the clinic does for clients is meaningful in its own right, Aronson shares that the impact she has on her students is just as important to her.

“Something that feels really great is that I’m passing on not just the knowledge and the ability to practice law, but also the passion and the will to serve this community, and just in general, to serve underrepresented people,” Aronson said.

Despite the highlights of her work, Aronson shares that the difficult emotional nature of it can take its toll on her mental health. In particular, she touched on how disheartening it can be to have to reject clients or to let them know their case cannot move forward.

“Secondary trauma is a real thing, and having to constantly disappoint people by saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do to help you,’ is hard,” Aronson said.

Many times, cases can involve harrowing stories of survival, and Blanco said that listening to those stories can cause many attorneys to become desensitized over time. However, Aronson assures her students that complicated emotional responses are normal and should be addressed rather than ignored.

“She ensured us that it is normal to feel emotional and upset about the things that our clients have lived through,” Ayala Blanco said. “As attorneys, we often become numb to certain situations because we deal with difficult circumstances so often. At the end of the day, though, we are still human.”

Aronson said that despite the job’s emotional toll, the reward of a successful case is enough to keep her going through the difficult cases.

“I will say that the rewards are so big that they really do keep you going,” Aronson said. “The sort of like, visible help that you’re giving to people. No, you can’t help everyone, but you know, nobody can help everyone.”

A combination of therapy and focusing on the small things that bring her joy has helped Aronson navigate her work. She said that doing the work to keep herself healthy outside of work ensures that she can be her best self for her clients.

Ultimately, Aronson said that the most rewarding aspect of her job is the role that the clinic plays in the community. Providing legal representation to those who would otherwise be forced to navigate the system alone is incredibly impactful, she said.

“The biggest sort of reward overall, is providing legal services to people who would otherwise not have representation,” Aronson said. “Filling a void in the community, even if we aren’t winning the case, or getting relief. It’s the ability to provide all of the people in the community that we’re able to with due process and actual representation, so that they’re not having to navigate the legal system of a different country, often in a different language, by themselves.”

[email protected]