This is the fifteenth installment of our Alumni Spotlight series, which features interviews with former IRAP students who have become strong advocates and leaders in their fields of practice.
Meet Patricia Stottlemyer, former member of the IRAP chapter at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and current Litigation Staff Attorney at Human Rights First.
The views expressed here are entirely her own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
I came to law school determined to use my skills and education to fight discrimination against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. After undergrad, I had been working in Washington, D.C. in the U.S. foreign policy space, advocating for a more just U.S. foreign policy toward the peoples and nations of the Middle East and North Africa. When one of my classmates invited me to volunteer with Penn Law’s IRAP chapter, I jumped at the opportunity to use my regional and cultural knowledge, including my Arabic language skills, in the new legal world I was entering.
Working with IRAP allowed me to investigate how I might marry my pre-law school background with my future as an attorney. And it allowed me to bridge the international and the domestic spheres. From the halls of my law school, I could reach out to refugees in Iraq, and try to bring together the resources of law students and pro bono attorneys in service of those fleeing persecution. IRAP was a home for me at Penn Law. While some in the legal world are dismissive of international law, IRAP showed me that there is a robust role for international law and U.S. lawyers to play together.
My work with IRAP also drove my desire to work with clients. I fell in love with the practice of serving clients in need, and using the resources at my disposal to work the system in their favor.
IRAP’s law school chapter members provide aid to our clients and support for our legal, litigation, and policy advocacy initiatives. Please describe your experience working on IRAP projects to secure and expand pathways to safety for displaced people.
Working with IRAP allowed me to see refugee rights in action. It also allowed me to explore the intersection between my background in international politics and the domestic lawyering space.
I started out as a case volunteer, and then I became a case manager and member of the board. I was struck by the powerful stories of my clients—individuals who had endured unimaginable hardship and suffering. Their resilience was remarkable. I worked with LGBTQ individuals fleeing horrific persecution. I worked with interpreters who had risked their lives to serve alongside U.S. servicemembers, only to wait years wading through the red tape of the resettlement system.
My work with IRAP allowed me to see how my legal skills might allow me to work on what I had always been interested in: trying to remedy the injustices of U.S. foreign policy. In many ways, of course, U.S. policy played a role in creating or accelerating the dynamics and conditions that engender persecution. When I worked in the U.S. foreign policy space before coming to law school, I was immensely bothered by how disconnected U.S. policy was from the human beings it affected. IRAP allowed me to work with the human beings who suffered the consequences of those policies most directly, and to try to facilitate their access to power in protection, to the mechanisms of the international legal system that were designed to serve them.
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
Since graduating from law school, I have been working as a human rights lawyer and advocate, specifically with refugees seeking asylum in the United States. At Human Rights First in Washington, D.C., I litigate strategic impact lawsuits in U.S. federal courts, aimed at protecting the rights of asylum seekers, including through ensuring meaningful and fair access to the U.S. asylum system. The Trump administration has engaged in a relentless campaign to dismantle that system, attacking the rights of asylum seekers and attempting to foreclose avenues to refugee protection in the United States. In my current role, I use federal court litigation to vindicate refugee rights by seeking to invalidate those unlawful and inhumane policies. One of our class action lawsuits has led me to working with detained asylum seekers who have been unlawfully and unnecessarily subjected to detention—simply for seeking protection in the United States. Advocating for their release, and for the reform of the civil immigration detention system, has been one of my greatest privileges as an attorney.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
Working with IRAP solidified my passion for working with clients, and for working at the intersection of international and domestic law. It also showed me the incredible value of working with pro bono attorneys to serve refugee clients. In my current role, I rely heavily on the tireless volunteer work of some of the most talented and accomplished law firm attorneys in the country. IRAP’s law school model, which is similar to Human Rights First’s model of partnering with and mentoring pro bono attorneys, was my first foray into the power that partnering with law firms could bring to bear in service of our clients.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
It is an immense privilege to be able to go to work every day to use my legal education and skills to advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. As attorneys, we have access to the mechanisms of power in our society via the legal system, and refugees, despite their unparalleled contributions to U.S. society, often lack access to those systems of power. My colleagues at Human Rights First fight every day to protect the rights of asylum seekers and to hold the United States accountable to its refugee law obligations. This includes fighting in Congress to rebuild the bipartisan consensus on refugee resettlement that has been shaken under the Trump administration; fighting in immigration courts to protect our clients from being returned to persecution; and fighting in federal courts to beat back the policies aimed at foreclosing access to refugee protection in the United States.