LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Being an illegal immigrant doesn't make someone a criminal - that's a distinction Elizabeth Young hopes to hammer home to Arkansas residents.
"It's not a crime to be here undocumented," Young says. "It's a civil issue."
As director of the University of Arkansas' new immigration law clinic, she'll lead students helping clients through the dense web of regulations governing those coming to the United States. The new clinic, which opens in early January, comes after Arkansas became home to one of the nation's fastest growing Hispanic populations.
That new population left the state's few immigration lawyers with unmanageable caseloads, taking on a host of pro bono clients that couldn't receive legal help anywhere else, Young said. The load grew after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, as the number of annual deportations across the nation more than tripled, rising to about 350,000.
But not all immigration cases involve deportation. They include requests for political asylum and applications for citizenship after immigrants marry a U.S. citizen.
The new clinic will handle all those cases, Young said. The clinic will be staffed with four students for its first semester of operations, with each working about 25 hours a week. Later, it will expand to take in as many as eight students a semester, with some even arguing cases before federal immigration judges.
The university's law school already has several clinics allowing students to work for defense attorneys and prosecutors. When the law school looked for a new clinic to start, a student petition overwhelmingly requested immigration law be added, Young said.
The university hired Young, 31, away from the George Washington School of Law's Immigration Clinic. Young, a native of the Johnson County town of Lamar, acknowledged the complexity of immigration law - which often involves those detained to be identified by numbers only and sent to jails out of state.
"You get immersed in it and you have to fight your way through it," Young said.
Fayetteville, where the university is based, sits right in the middle of the state's booming Hispanic population. U.S. Census Bureau statistics shows Arkansas has more than 150,000 Hispanics living within its borders, up from 1990, when estimates showed only 19,876 lived in the state.
In 2007, the Mexican government opened a consulate in Little Rock to offer some legal aid to its citizens. Still, a need remains - especially as Arkansas also draws Hmong immigrants to the state, Young said.
Illegal immigration is a politically sensitive issue in the state as well, with Gov. Mike Beebe often using the refrain "illegal means illegal." Though the university receives state funding, Young said teaching students to represent immigrants would prove valuable for their careers practicing the law.
"Students need to learn how to represent all people. A law school should focus on being able to represent a broad range of clients," she said. "Our students aren't going to go out and just represent corporations. They're going to go out and represent a whole range of people."