This is the ninth 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 Citlalli Ochoa, former Case Manager of the IRAP chapter at University of California, Irvine School of Law, and current Staff Attorney at the International Justice Resource Center.
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 first became involved with IRAP during my first year of law school in the fall of 2013. UCI Law encouraged all of its incoming students to become involved in pro bono, and IRAP was one of the pro bono projects that most appealed to me. I was particularly drawn to the opportunity to advance and enforce international human rights and domestic legal standards on behalf of refugees and displaced persons around the world. In 2014, I was able to take on a case to assist a former U.S. military interpreter in Afghanistan obtain a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). It is significant that, to date, his SIV application is still going through the approval process, despite numerous threats to his life and requests to expedite the process.
IRAP shaped my law school experience in various ways. First, it shed a direct light on the many bureaucratic obstacles that some of the world’s most persecuted individuals have to face in order to reach a place of stability and safety. Second, it allowed me to better understand how the “access to justice” principle plays out at the international level, when multiple stakeholders, including intergovernmental organizations and states, are involved. Specifically, it highlighted the importance of legal representation to refugees and displaced persons, regardless of where they are in the world or what their specific circumstances are. Finally, volunteering with IRAP made me a more effective advocate and renewed my commitment to strengthening legal protections for all refugees and displaced persons.
IRAP has a unique model of partnering law students with pro bono lawyers — please describe your experience working with attorneys on urgent refugee resettlement cases.
As Case Manager of UCI Law’s IRAP chapter, I was able to observe how supervising attorneys engaged with our student volunteers. I was most inspired by all of the attorneys’ willingness to learn and provide guidance to students on refugee and immigration law, even when it wasn’t their area of expertise, and to be as committed and dedicated to their pro bono work as to their regular casework. While each supervising attorney has a different approach, my supervising attorney was very involved and responsive throughout the process. I appreciated that he gave my partner and me a lot of independence in drafting materials for our case and in conducting the necessary interviews, but was also ready and willing to provide feedback.
What have you been doing since you graduated from University of California, Irvine School of Law?
Since graduating from UCI Law, I have been working at the International Justice Resource Center (IJRC) in San Francisco. IJRC is an international human rights organization dedicated to making human rights protections more accessible to advocates and victims. IJRC informs, trains, and advises advocates and individual victims on using international and regional human rights protections to advance justice and accountability in their communities.
In line with IJRC’s mission, my work involves providing informational materials, legal and practical advice, and trainings to people around the world that want to access international human rights fora. A recent example of our work that is directly related to IRAP’s work involves advocacy efforts before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)—an independent human rights monitoring body with jurisdiction over the United States and 34 other members of the Organization of American States.
In February 2017, we partnered with the ACLU to submit a joint request urging the IACHR to hold an emergency hearing on the “travel ban,” and several dozen civil society organizations and academic institutions signed on in support of the request. In response, the IACHR held a public hearing on March 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C. to examine and monitor the human rights implications of the executive order for individuals and communities in the United States and abroad.
It is my goal to continue using international human rights mechanisms to advance the work of organizations like IRAP at the international stage in order to ensure a greater degree of state accountability.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
My work with IRAP helped me better understand how non-governmental organizations, international governmental organizations, and states can cooperate to help some of the most at-risk individuals around the world. This has inspired me to seek creative solutions to problems that defy geographical boundaries, and to continue fighting for institutional changes—domestically and abroad—that make refugee and resettlement systems more just and that ensure accountability for rights violations.
Through my work with IRAP, I also had the opportunity to interact with individuals of diverse backgrounds, languages, religions, and countries. This, in itself, impacted the way that I approach my work in the human rights field. Mainly, it emphasized for me the importance of incorporating the perspective of victims and individuals affected by an issue in all advocacy efforts.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
I have chosen to dedicate time to a pro bono case representing an unaccompanied minor from Central America. While systemic advocacy, including before international human rights mechanisms, and litigation efforts are important strategies to address the refugee crisis, it is crucial to keep in mind the fact that each refugee is an individual — not just a number adding to the crisis. I have concentrated my efforts on an individual client because I believe that conversations about the refugee crisis are often missing a discussion about the specific individuals that are impacted; learning about and sharing my client’s story allows me to add to that discussion.
More generally, I believe that it is essential to educate those around me about the conflicts that refugees are fleeing, the intricacies of the legal process that refugees face, and the lack of access to legal assistance. I am specifically concerned about the media coverage surrounding the crisis, which is often inaccurate, politicized, and aimed at creating an environment of fear. I view the lack of accurate and factual information about the legal process for refugees and about the individuals seeking refuge as one of the main challenges to advancing refugee policies that are humane and progressive.