by Cindy Knoebel

This continues our series highlighting women who advocate for, document, and aid immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.

Jennifer Koh is Professor of Law at Western State College of Law (WSCL), where she also serves as the Director of its Immigration Clinic. Professor Koh is an expert on immigration law and clinical teaching, and has devoted her career to promoting and protecting the rights of immigrants across the country. Professor Koh's full bio can be found here.

Professor Jennifer Koh

Cindy Knoebel: When did you first become interested in immigrant rights?

Jennifer Koh: My interest in immigrants’ rights work has been longstanding. I believe I wrote about my desire to work in this field when first applying to law school over 20 years ago! Much of my interest came from learning more about how immigration law and policy shaped Asian-American communities, as well as our understanding of race and racial identity in this country.

CK: In addition to teaching Immigration Law and Administrative Law, you’re also the Director of the College’s Immigration Clinic. Tell us about why the clinic was formed and what it does.

JL: I joined the faculty at Western State College of Law in 2010 after completing a 3-year clinical teaching fellowship at Stanford Law School, where I had the privilege of working with Professor Jayashri Srikantiah in the Stanford Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. By that point, my goal was to pursue a career in clinical teaching. For the past 9 years, the Immigration Clinic at Western State has provided pro bono legal representation to low-income immigrants in a wide variety of immigration matters while training upper level law students in practical lawyering skills and in social justice advocacy.

In more recent years, the Clinic has prioritized deportation defense and bond cases for detained immigrants in Orange County.  Unfortunately, due to severe financial troubles that Western State College of Law experienced this year as a result of its affiliation with Argosy University, the Immigration Clinic is in the process of closing. (At the time that I’m writing this, it remains unclear whether Western State College of Law will continue to operate into the future).

CK: You’re also the President of the Board of Directors of the Orange County Justice Fund, which was started in 2017. What was the impetus behind creating the Fund?

JK: The Orange County Justice Fund (OCJF) was created through a joint effort amongst law professors, lawyers and organizers who wanted to see an organization wholly focused on the needs of detained immigrants in Orange County.  The founding Board came together shortly after the City of Santa Ana enacted its sanctuary ordinance, and as Santa Ana was considering an allocation of public funding towards deportation defense (which it ultimately did!). We had two main goals: first, to create an immigrant bond fund to prevent the prolonged detention and financial devastation that often comes from monetary bonds by providing the finances to pay for bonds, and two, to support deportation defense legal services efforts that reflect our commitment to strengthening universal representation in Orange County.

CK: On March 27, the Orange County sheriff’s department announced it was ending its contract with ICE. What was your reaction when you heard the announcement?

JK: Speaking personally, I had mixed reactions. It’s a complicated issue. On one hand, we’ve seen the closure of ICE facilities in local jurisdictions throughout the country, often as a result of advocacy geared towards abolishing immigration detention. I support the abolition of immigration detention, and it’s good to see Orange County reduce its complicity with ICE.  

On the other hand, the existence of immigration detention in Orange County has resulted in greater moral outrage about immigration detention, flowing from the mere fact that many people here in Orange County have born witness to the harmful effects of and conditions in ICE detention.  At the time the contract termination was announced, the local visitation program (Friends of the Orange County Detainees) had reached all-time highs in their volunteer recruitment and visitation, and the pro bono deportation defense legal network was in the process of growing stronger. I have concerns about the short-term impact of the closure on immigrant detainees now, which is why OCJF is working hard to increase its fundraising around its bond fund and lawyers are strategizing ways to mitigate the harms of possible transfers.  

CK: Approximately 700 people currently detained in two OC facilities with ICE contracts will be transferred to other facilities. Is the Justice Fund involved in efforts to help the families of those being transferred?

JK: Yes! As noted above, we are working to increase the resources of our bond fund so that people who have valid bonds are released instead of transferred.

CK: Will the sheriff’s department’s decision impact the work of the Justice Fund? If so, how?

JK: There will certainly be an impact in terms of what our programs will look like, but OCJF’s commitment to lifting up the needs of Orange County residents who are detained by immigration authorities will continue, regardless of where they are detained. And we do anticipate that OC residents will continue to be impacted by harsh immigration enforcement policies.

CK: The Justice Fund was formed to provide legal resources to the OC undocumented immigrant community, estimated at 310,000 individuals. Can you give us some examples of cases the Fund has worked on and/or people you’ve helped? Any in particular stand out for you?

JK: So far we have provided all or part of the immigration bonds for six people, and we have several more lined up for release any day now. They include a father of two young US citizen children; several members of the LGBT community from countries like Honduras and Ghana, who were fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation; and a person with severe disabilities.

CK: One of the goals of the Justice Fund was to create a sustainable bond fund … has it bonded people out? Might those resources be redirected to help those who will be transferred out of OC?

JK: Yes! My hope is that OCJF will continue to provide immigration bonds for people with ties to Orange County, even if they are transferred or detained elsewhere.  

CK: What’s next for the Justice Fund? What is your longer term vision?

JK: We see ourselves as part of a broader movement comprised of many allies (including ImmPrint and Freedom for Immigrants) in which immigration detention does not exist, and in which universal representation in immigration court does.

CK: What resources does the Fund need the most? How can people support its work?

JK: Right now, we are fundraising for our bond fund. We have some other specific needs (like a great website designer who might be willing to do some pro bono work for us), for which interested people can contact us at info@ocjusticefund.org.

Professor Koh and her daughter at the 2017 Orange County women's march