For Nazeli Khodabakhsh, a second-year student at the USC Gould School of Law, finding opportunities to give back to the community has proved difficult. However, USC Gould has been in the process of developing clinics — one of which is focused on immigration — throughout Los Angeles for students like Khodabakhsh to apply legal knowledge from her classes.
The Gould Immigration Clinic will be hosting a Citizenship Clinic on Feb. 24 with the Armenian Youth Federation Burbank Varak chapter and the Armenian Cultural Foundation.
The clinic, which will be held at the ACF Burbank Youth Center, will assist legally permanent residents with their naturalization applications.
According to Khodabakhsh, a member of the AYF Central Executive, citizenship clinics are just one of the projects the Gould Immigration Clinic facilitates.
“The idea is to have students have hands-on experience working with real clients,” Khodabakhsh said. “We’re all supervised by our professors and for the immigration clinic, each one of us gets maybe 10 clients that we’re responsible for throughout the year. We help them file for immigration benefits, different kinds of visas, people seeking asylum — we help with all of that.”
While planning the upcoming clinic, Khodabakhsh served as a liaison between the AYF Burbank chapter and the Gould Immigration Clinic. Khodabakhsh added that the partnership between the two organizations allowed them to reach a broader range of people who may be interested in naturalization.
“We have sort of like a small army to reach out to individuals and ask, ‘Are you a citizen? Are you interested in becoming a citizen? We have this free project that can help you,’” Khodabakhsh said. “We have different contacts within our communities, so USC is maybe 15 miles away from Burbank but it seems like two different worlds — we really focus on the Burbank area and reaching out to people there but USC has its own contacts and its own people who have been interested in these clinics in the past.”
According to Dulce Sanchez, the USC Gould Immigration Clinic’s program manager, the outreach process for clinics begin a month or two in advance. Sanchez was in charge of coordinating citizenship clinics throughout the L.A. area.
“We put together the flyers, send them to the community centers, to libraries, churches, adult school community colleges, and share it with folks that may be interested in naturalizing,” Sanchez said. “If there are lawful permanent residents in the area interested in naturalizing, they’ll give us a call at the number listed on the flyer.”
Sanchez said that during this process, they also screen the lawfully permanent resident for eligibility to waive an application fee and provide resources for those who cannot afford them.
“We have had a lot of folks come to a previous clinic who have expressed interest in naturalizing for some time, but for whatever reason didn’t have the financial means to pay the $725 fee so we’ll go ahead and assist them,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said that the clinic’s other co-sponsor, the ACF, have also helped with outreach, especially throughout the Armenian community.
“They’re more tapped into that community, whether it be families that come to their center or are in surrounding areas,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been supervising our students so that they can conduct outreach in the areas nearby, such as Glendale [and] North Hollywood, just so that we can expand this service to as many people as possible.
Khodabakhsh said that she finds immigration law fascinating and hopes to help as many people naturalize as possible due to the rights and civic responsibilities that come with becoming a citizen. For example, once someone becomes a citizen, they are granted voting rights and do not have to undergo the risk of getting deported.
“Once you have a green card, or [become a] lawful permanent resident, that also allows you to stay, but if you commit certain crimes or anything you could be deported,” Khodabakhsh said. “But a lot of people don’t necessarily know that, and so they’re like, ‘I can stay with a green card forever, I have legal status.’”
According to Sanchez, the Gould Immigration Clinic is a resource that is available to all students at USC, especially those who have questions regarding citizenship or are undocumented and are seeking help. Sanchez said that all students can volunteer at the Gould Immigration Clinic and was “in awe” of the work students have been doing, such as helping their community to gain more substantive knowledge on immigration laws.
“[Students] are interested in pursuing a career in immigration law, so this has given them a preview of what a career in that field may look like,” Sanchez said. “It’s been a great opportunity for students and I hope that many more students will consider volunteering at our future clinics.”