CUNY’s Immigration Law Certificate Program—the Only One in the Country

Francisco Diez

Immigration is always a hot button issue.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, students are doing something about it. They are enrolling in the Immigration Law Certificate Program and training to assist immigrants.

Fenix Arias, 32, enrolled, because this certificate will help her achieve a connected goal. Arias wants to become an advocate for adolescents who are left behind in the United States when their parents are deported. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the impact that deportation has on these adolescents.

“To become an advocate for these children, I have to become more knowledgeable about their environment, the labor market, immigration law and family law because eventually this becomes a matter of children’s rights,” she says.

Most students who enroll in the certificate program already work with immigrants in law firms, community-based organizations and not- for-profits. Professionals have found that the laws change so rapidly that the only way to help immigrants effectively is by learning about immigration law.

Luis Juarez, 25, a paralegal, was motivated to enroll in the program this semester when he thought about his friends in high school who fell into two categories, those with papers and those without them. Those who were not illegal were looking forward to college, while the others were not. Their futures limited by their status.

The Immigration Law Certificate started in the spring of 2005 and is the only program of its kind in the country. Baruch professor Allan Wernick created it to address the growing need of professionals dealing with immigrant populations to know immigration law. New York City, with its large immigrant population is an ideal place to begin such a program, says Wernick, explaining that 40 percent of the population is foreign-born and 51 percent live in a household with at least one foreign-born person.

“We have the most sophisticated, advanced and comprehensive immigration law studies program in the country,” he says. “We not only serve the New York area, but we have national reach by offering our classes online. Currently, three courses are available online: Intro to Immigration Law, Business Immigration Law and Naturalization and Citizenship.”

Rio Guerrero, 37, began teaching the Business Immigration Law in the classroom for one semester and then moved on to design and to teach the Intro to Immigration Law online. He enjoys the programs’ collegiate environment, which is not often found in the practice of law. He says he is also happy to be part of the faculty and to be teaching great students.

“Each semester that I teach I am more and more impressed by the students who take the course,” he says. “They could be individuals who are simply interested in immigration law. This semester I have one student who is a director and producer of movies and has produced and directed a movie on immigration law in the United States in the past. We’ve got human resources persons from colleges and universities or from corporations. We’ve got other attorneys and paralegals, who either work in the area already or are interested in branching out and starting an immigration law practice at their law firm. So, I’m always impressed by the intensity of our discussions and the passion behind many of our students’ views. It is enjoyable to see the evolution of their education.”

Guerrero has found that one of the biggest challenges of teaching an online course is that at times it is difficult to carry on a more in-depth discussion. This sentiment is echoed by another professor of the online courses.

Victoria Donoghue, 44, began teaching the Naturalization and Citizenship course online this semester and has found that the biggest challenge is that all material has to be up and ready on Blackboard on week one. Live courses have a little more time to prepare. She was also concerned that she would lose students if the classes were not engaging. However, she was pleasantly surprised at how good the students are. Usually, she puts up a hypothetical case on Blackboard and asks the students to analyze it and respond how they would handle it and they have done very well.

“The most rewarding aspect of it is that students keep at it and really learn,” says Donoghue. “I was concerned there were two particular classes towards the beginning of the semester that are really difficult. It’s a part of naturalization that’s hard for lawyers and makes your head spin. I had no choice but to have that material up front, because of what it is. I was concerned that I was going to lose them, but I didn’t lose them at all. They keep coming back and they get it. When they analyze the cases, they have it right. So they’re definitely learning, so that’s very rewarding for me.”

The Immigration Law Certificate Program is one of a kind. The hope of the professors and professionals in this industry is that other universities will begin teaching this material to combat all the misinformation surrounding immigration.

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