This is the nineteenth 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 Rie Ohta, former member of the IRAP chapter at UCLA School of Law, and current Litigation Fellow at the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law.
The views expressed here are entirely his own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
I first heard about IRAP during my 1L year, but unfortunately my law school’s chapter was not very active that year. In my 2L year, several other students and I re-started the UCLA Law IRAP chapter. IRAP was my first opportunity working directly with clients – in another country and with a language barrier no less. I was fascinated – and horrified – by how much our clients’ ability to get SIV visas was dictated by which and how many Americans they interacted with while they had worked for the U.S. Government. Working with IRAP clients revealed how much chance is involved in getting refugee status, and how successfully applying for protection is virtually impossible without legal representation. I saw the same dynamics play out as I moved from IRAP, to UNHCR, to Human Rights Watch, and after law school, to the Los Angeles and Van Nuys Immigration Courts.
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.
At UCLA Law, I ran the chapter and ran the intake program. While working with the intake program, my primary client was a transgender woman in Saudi Arabia, who was being abused by her family members. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how unusual IRAP’s work is, but in all my work with refugee and migrant populations after IRAP, never have I encountered another organization that is so actively working to assist people prior to leaving their country of origin. IRAP is truly unique in this regard, and the work is absolutely vital to protecting vulnerable people who otherwise may not have the ability to flee their abusers or other persecution in their home country.
What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?
Since graduating from law school, I clerked at the Los Angeles and Van Nuys Immigration Courts (EOIR) for a little over a year, and then took a fellowship at UCLA School of Law working in the Human Rights Litigation Clinic of the Promise Institute for Human Rights.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
IRAP was the launchpad that brought me to my subsequent internships, externships, and my first job. Even though my work with IRAP was quite narrow in scope – focusing only on the SIV process and nominally on refugee law – it provided the start I needed to begin to engage with the wild world of U.S. and International refugee and migration law.
At a time when refugees have been more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
I have never had an issue getting a visa I needed, and indeed have rarely needed a visa in my international travels. The stark contrast between my ability to travel and move without thinking about borders or documentation, and the limitations facing refugee/migrant clients and colleagues I’ve worked with never fails to astound and humble me. While refugees’ stories of resilience and rebuilding never cease to inspire me, the magnitude of the problems facing refugee populations around the world can feel crushing. At the end of the day, though, there is nothing I would rather dedicate my life and professional career to – imagining and creating a more just and equitable world, where people fleeing violence and persecution can expect to be respected, listened to, and treated with the dignity that they deserve.