Requirements to be considered under new immigration policy:
■ Under age 16 when came to U.S.
■ Has already resided in U.S. continuously for at least five years already
■ In school, a high school graduate, obtained GED or honorably discharged
■ Not been convicted of a serious crime; doesn’t pose threat to national security
■ Not older than 30
Source: Department of Homeland Security
EAST NAPLES — Only two weeks into their legal studies, two first-year law students stood in an East Naples office lobby this week before 50 undocumented youths, many still in high school.
The immigrants' futures in the U.S. depend on the Deferred Application for Childhood Arrivals, and Ewin Aponte and Jessica Aramburo were there with their classmates to help.
"It's good getting your head out of the books," said Aponte, who started classes at Ave Maria School of Law this month.
The law school's Asylum and Immigrant Rights Law Clinic this week lent nascent legal skills to four days of information sessions hosted by Legal Aid Service of Collier County, helping an estimated 300-400 individuals determine whether they are ready to apply for the new stop-gap program that provides temporary reprieve from deportation.
Though the law students couldn't dispense legal advice and three attorneys oversaw the sessions, they could explain the application checklist to nervous teens anxious to make sure their paperwork was in order. Some bilingual law school students also fielded questions in Spanish, putting some of the youth more at ease, said Maureen Kelleher, who heads the Legal Aid Immigration Law unit.
The arrangement is as beneficial to the agency as it is to the students, she said, noting "they love the client contact."
The Asylum and Immigrant Rights Law Clinic followed the law school down when it moved from Michigan to rural Collier County in 2009. In previous school years, students and their professor supported Haitian immigrants sorting through paper work following the 2010 earthquake, and victims of violence applying for a special visa.
But when Alex Vernon, who became acting director of the clinic last year, heard the Department of Homeland Security announcement in June expanding the Deferred Action program to include undocumented youth who finished or are enrolled in school, without a significant criminal background,
"I did have students emailing me as soon as the announcement went out: 'What's going to happen with this?'" Vernon said.
He coordinated with Legal Aid, which provides low or no-cost legal advice to immigrant applicants from its East Naples office. The plan culminated with the sessions this week.
Hundreds of young immigrants who entered the country illegally before the age of 16 lined up for advice at information sessions in Immokalee and East Naples.
The first-year law students greeted them, answering basic questions about the application. Then second- and third-year students, along with Vernon and Legal Aid staff, provided a more in-depth question-and-answer session.
Cases deemed more complicated — where marriage, arrests, or other complications make the application process less straightforward — entered directly to see volunteer attorneys, including a former immigration judge.
"The students get to learn how to be lawyers by working on live cases with real people," said Vernon, who graduated from Ave Maria's law school when it was in Michigan.
"I'm a believer in it," he added of the immigration law clinic. "It's a program I came through myself. (It) made me very practice-ready."
Vernon worked as an immigration lawyer in Michigan for several years before taking the position of the clinic's acting director.
Students like Babette Joseph, now in her third and final year of law school, spend 200 hours in a semester between class and work just for the clinic.
Joseph, who was on hand Wednesday night to guide applicants through the process, said participating in the clinic puts her on the right path to become an immigrant like Vernon.
"The things I'm learning here are definitely transferable skills," she noted.
It's a time to learn from mistakes in a controlled environment, with a lawyer watching over to troubleshoot.
"At least I learn them here and not in the field," Joseph said.