Q&A with Immigration Clinic’s Phil Torrey

Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor Phil Torrey

We recently sat down with Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor Phil Torrey to discuss the intersection of criminal law and immigration, the new course he is teaching this fall, and how he became interested in immigration law. (Please note that responses have been edited for length.)

What is “crimmigration” and what will students learn in the new course and clinical placement?
Crimmigration is the intersection of criminal law and immigration. It can refer to the immigration consequences of criminal activity but it also encompasses the general criminalization of immigration status. Because it’s so difficult to obtain immigration protection for non-citizens who have been accused of engaging in criminal activity, this group is often the most in need of help.

The clinical seminar will include discussion of doctrinal topics as well as policy issues. Students in the clinic will be divided into teams and complete at least one crimmigration-related project. The goal of the course and clinical work is to give students the tools necessary to spot and evaluate the immigration consequences of criminal activity.

How did you become interested in the topic of crimmigration?
When I was volunteering at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), I worked with clients who had criminal convictions in their past. These cases were extremely challenging, but incredibly important as many of the clients had been advised by their criminal defense attorneys to plead guilty to avoid jail time without understanding the effect that had on their immigration status. I quickly became interested in learning more about the complex area of criminal law and immigration law. The issue has been growing in importance on a national level since 2010, when the Supreme Court decided that defense attorneys must advise clients about the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a crime (Padilla v. Kentucky). Clinic Director Debbie Anker was a big proponent of doing more crimmigration work at HIRC and I was excited to help develop the new course and clinic with her.

What other immigration issues do you work on?
I’m the supervising attorney for the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP), a student practice organization affiliated with our clinic. Among other projects and activities, HIP students represent clients in immigration detention at their bond hearings. Most of our clients in the bond hearing project have some type of criminal activity in their past, so HIP’s work complements the crimmigraton clinic nicely.

Other projects that HIP students are working on include helping refugees navigate the application process for securing green cards. They also handle family reunification petitions when someone is granted asylum and looking to bring their family to the United States. In fact, most of the petitioners are former clients of HIRC.

How did you find yourself at HLS?
I took a circuitous route. In law school, I took an immigration and asylum clinic, which I really enjoyed. After law school, while working at a large corporate firm, I took advantage of their leave policy to work as a fellow at GBLS, and I became familiar with the HIRC team. During this time, I became attached to my clients and to the work but I had to return to my firm after my fellowship ended. After staying at the firm for about another nine months, saving money, and getting the blessing of my very supportive partner, I quit and returned to GBLS as a volunteer. Eventually, I applied for this position at HIRC when it opened up and the rest is history.