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Laura Rodríguez

College: City College
Awards: Justice Fellowship from the Immigrant Justice Corps, 2015

Championing Justice for Immigrants

Growing up with a Colombian mother in Jackson Heights, a Queens neighborhood that's one of the most diverse in the nation, Laura Sofia Rodríguez says she "always felt part of a community of immigrants, even though I was born here."

Nearing her 2015 graduation from Emory University School of Law, Rodríguez (City College, B.A. in Spanish, concentration in Latin American Literature and History, '11) says she heard about the Immigrant Justice Corps and "knew it would be my dream job."

She is one of two CUNY alumnae and new law school graduates to win a 2015 Justice Fellowship from the Immigrant Justice Corps, joining Nabila Taj (CUNY School of Law, '15). Three CUNY baccalaureate graduates won Community Fellowships to conduct outreach and legal intake for immigrant-law organizations.

Robert A. Katzmann, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, founded the Corps in 2014 because too few attorneys were providing affordable representation to immigrants. His initiative grew out of a study that found immigrants with a lawyer were almost six times more likely to win their cases than those without, and that incompetent legal providers for immigrants often swindled their clients and botched their cases. The corps this year awarded 35 fellowships.

Rodríguez is assigned to Immigration Equality in Lower Manhattan, the only national organization that primarily represents LGBT/HIV-positive clients on immigration matters. "Immigration Equality literally saves the lives of people who are persecuted in their home countries based on their status as LGBT/H," she says. It also works on policy and legislative reform.

Her two-year fellowship can be renewed for a third year. "I'll go to immigration court on matters including asylum and removal proceedings and do appellate work in federal court, which is really exciting." The agency primarily handles clients from Jamaica, Russia and Mexico.

An undergraduate history class on the fall of communism put Rodríguez on the path to a legal career. "The professor made us think critically and be analytical about what we were reading and not take what's written at face value. I enjoyed that intellectual challenge." Realizing that the law required the same sort of rigorous thinking, she interned at a local immigration law firm as an undergraduate "to see beyond the "Law and Order: SVU" shows. When I saw what the practice of law is really like, I knew that's what I wanted."

At Emory, Rodríguez interned at the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and the Latin American Association in Atlanta. "Every time I talk with clients, no matter what their background, mostly indigent, I hear my mom, who was a housekeeper in Manhattan for very wealthy people and struggled hard to give me a great future," she says. "When I hear clients going through similar issues, I'm motivated to do my best. I feel personally invested in what I do and feel really lucky to have found an area of law I can be truly passionate about."