A dark-haired woman enters a conference room at the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and cautiously smiles. In her hand, she nervously clutches a file containing her son’s greatest hope for safety and freedom: an application for asylum in the United States.

Speaking fluent Spanish, Holly Trice, L’11, asks her why she came here tonight. The woman explains that she does not have legal status and that her son left El Salvador in 2008 by himself at the age of 15 to escape gang recruitment. He applied for asylum shortly after his arrival in the U.S., and his trial was delayed until March 2011. As the details come out, Trice’s face lights up in recognition — she remembers this case.

For the past three years Trice has been a dedicated volunteer with the University of Richmond School of Law’s Immigrant Assistance Project. The pro bono program is a partnership between the law school, the Richmond law firm of Williams Mullen, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Law students like Trice volunteer in monthly legal clinics that serve low-income, qualifying immigrants in matters ranging from the adjustment of immigration status to unfair wage practices.

At tonight’s clinic two volunteer attorneys, a paralegal and law students Trice, Brandon Jaycox, L’12, and Laura May, L’12, meet with 19 potential clients. They include a Peruvian man who has overstayed his travel visa, but who is married to a U.S. citizen; a family of five from Mexico — the man is here legally but the rest of the family is not; and a woman who is divorcing her husband because of domestic violence and who wants to apply for a U-visa, a special type of visa that affords her legal status if she agrees to cooperate in the prosecution of her abuser.

While these immigrants share their stories, Trice listens intently and translates for Robert Redmond of Williams Mullen, who founded the immigration clinic in 2005. Later in the week, Trice will intern in the firm’s downtown office, doing research, gathering evidence, and assisting in document drafting for the cases accepted by the program.

Trice, who has an undergraduate degree in Spanish and a master's in Latin American and Iberian studies with concentrations in Portuguese and Spanish, got involved with the immigration clinic as a 1L to maintain her language skills. She soon found that the clinic provides the opportunity to do much more than speak Spanish regularly.

“It is a very student-driven opportunity,” she says. “You can really get in there and do the legal research, write the briefs, present to attorneys and have a huge hand in the outcome of what happens to these people. … They come to you so desperate and it makes you want to go as far as you possibly can to help them.”

As word-of-mouth about the immigration assistance project has spread through the Hispanic community, the law school’s involvement has also grown. In addition to assisting with the clinics twice a month, law students intern at Williams Mullen five days a week, working on immigration cases.

“I have great confidence in Richmond law students,” says Redmond of Williams Mullen. “They have done a fantastic job. They have a lot of autonomy — they have direct client contact and basically manage their own cases. We have been fortunate to get the support we have had from UR.”

Tara Casey, director of the law school’s Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service, says the partnership between the law school and Williams Mullen benefits everyone. Law students have helped the immigration clinic to grow and take on more clients. In return, they have the chance to do real work and experience a legal professional environment at one of the top regional law firms. “The success of the program enabled us to forge partnerships with other groups to provide assistance in the immigration field,” she says.

Redmond works closely with the student interns at Williams Mullen, answering their legal questions and reviewing their work. “Holly and Brandon have drafted motions I have pleaded in court,” he says. Paralegal Katie Lehnen provides administrative support.

Redmond says the immigration clinic has served about 1,800 clients in its six years, helping several hundred people get an adjustment in their immigration status and collecting about $350,000 in unpaid wages for clients. Word of the clinic has spread beyond Richmond, with clients now coming from Northern Virginia, Washington and even North Carolina. Between 15-20 Richmond law students volunteer with the program throughout the year.

“The most valuable thing law students get out of it is they get to see how much positive difference the involvement of a lawyer or law student can make in the life of a family,” Redmond says. “To change someone’s immigration status from questionable to lawful makes a huge impact — and it happens on a regular basis.”