This is the twenty-second 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 Laura Murchie, Litigation Staff Attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.
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 knowing that I wanted to practice international human rights law, likely focusing on refugees and asylum-seekers, so getting involved with IRAP was an obvious fit for me. IRAP was one of the most influential experiences I had in law school. As much as I loved my classes, I knew that practical, hands-on experience was where I’d learn what kind of work I liked in the legal field. It was one of my first times providing direct support to a client and I enjoyed both the legal aspect of learning about the Special Immigrant Visa program, as well as working directly with a family impacted by the program. I was also able to visit IRAP’s office in Jordan to conduct intakes with clients, and I deeply appreciated being able to engage in the work in a new way.
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.
Other than helping to run the IRAP chapter at The George Washington University Law School, the main case I worked on was for a humanitarian parole application for the daughter of an Iraqi translator who had previously been granted a Special Immigrant Visa. This involved preparing various forms, collecting documents from the family and coordinating the legal team, which consisted of both law student attorneys and a pro bono firm. Although the case was mostly done upon my graduation, the client’s father reached out to me about six months later to let me know his daughter was granted parole and was living in the United States. He also recently reached out to let me know that she now has a baby and is so happy to have the whole family together, and growing, in the U.S.
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
Graduating from law school in 2017 was both an interesting and difficult time to want to work in immigration law. While I always felt a moral obligation to go into immigration law, following the 2016 election, the topic was now on the national stage in a way it hadn’t been previously. I clerked for a year at the Newark Immigration Court, and while I appreciated being able to deeply understand and immerse myself in immigration law, over that year I witnessed more and more restrictions being placed on the immigration judges either through caselaw or through agency policy. The “frontlines” were calling me, so I went to go work at the Southeast Immigration Freedom Initiative (SIFI) of the Southern Poverty Law Center representing detained immigrants throughout rural Louisiana. In detention centers, particularly in rural areas (where the majority of detention centers are located), there are seemingly no rules, and laws meant to protect a person’s civil rights are more frequently violated than respected. Through various forms of advocacy, I sought mostly to get people released from detention so they could pursue their immigration claim outside of prison, or I represented people in their primary case. After 3.5 years of this work during the Trump administration and a global pandemic, burnout and emotional exhaustion felt very real. I have also always been interested in impact litigation, so I transitioned to the role of Litigation Staff Attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, focusing both on voting rights and immigrant justice.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
IRAP solidified my desire to work with displaced persons in vulnerable situations. It also opened me up to intersecting issues facing these populations, which is usually a myriad of civil rights violations. I also learned tangible skills. It was the first time I had to be clear about setting boundaries with a client who was living in a state of distress and fear. As difficult as it was (and still is), I quickly learned the importance of self-preservation in this line of work. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot care for anyone else. This is something I frequently battled during my time in Louisiana.
At a time when refugees have been more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
In the past, the line between professional and personal blurred a lot because my engagement on a professional level frequently bled into my personal life. Over the years I’ve learned just how important boundaries are, and to make sure I fill my cup in other ways, I am mindful about maintaining my hobbies and other passions in my life. That being said, I am still in contact with former clients of mine and check in or provide support if needed.