"One-man law firm" tears down wall between immigration and academic success at Rutgers
A self-proclaimed “one-man law firm” has been the legal backbone guiding University students to free, immigration-legal services since the start of the fall semester.
Jason Hernandez, an immigration-rights attorney in the Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP) at Rutgers Law School, has been working on removing barriers between University students and academic success.
Through his work with RICAP, Hernandez provides legal services, such as confidential legal consultation, direct representation and community education, for the student body across all three campuses.
“My role is (to) work with students to determine whether there are avenues of relief or immigration benefits available to them,” Hernandez said.
His three-pronged approach to providing immigration-legal services helps University students whose immigration statuses are in question, and provides the resources they need, he said.
“When you help somebody to remove the barriers of their immigration status to begin their lives in the United States, maybe I’m not changing the world, but for that one person their world is changed forever,” Hernandez said.
The creation of RICAP was catalyzed by President Donald J. Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented immigrants. The project led by Hernandez works to provide free and confidential legal consultations, according to an email from University Chancellor Debasish Dutta.
RICAP provides informational “Immigration” and “Know Your Rights” presentations when needed on each campus, according to its website.
Apart from these presentations, Hernandez said he has provided updates on the rescinding of DACA, on the injunction to reopen DACA renewal applications and on Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for individuals.
Hernandez said if there is a situation where he is not in the position to help a student, there is a list of reputable attorneys in New Jersey that he can refer the individual to.
The Daily Targum reported that since the inception of RICAP, Rutgers has also hired Yuriana Garcia Tellez, an immigration case manager, to serve as a point-person for members of the undocumented community searching for resources to make it to graduation.
Hernandez and Garcia Tellez are part of the growing support system available to students, he said.
“There are things that I can’t do that Yuriana (Garcia Tellez) can do,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s wonderful because, for one, it fills a gap that I was able to observe regularly but not able to do anything about, but also it’s easier to accomplish more with more than one person.”
Before arriving at the University, Hernandez worked at Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees navigate complex U.S. immigration, according to its website.
His time at HIAS Pennsylvania involved a variety of immigration-based legal work, from representing individuals that were seeking asylum granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to DACA-cases like he represents today at Rutgers, he said.
“When you help individuals regulate their status, whether through an asylum application, permanent residence or family reunification, just removing that barrier to employment authorization is exactly the assistance they need to start building their lives and take off,” Hernandez said.
He also served as the co-chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s (AILA) Philadelphia chapter, a bar association that represents more than 15,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law, according to its website.
“I connected, outside of the non-profit work, low-income individuals seeking legal services to pro-bono council that were members of AILA,” Hernandez said about his position as co-chair.
Early on, he said he knew he wanted to do some sort of non-profit or community service work once he graduated college. As a student at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he was a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a volunteer-supported mentoring network for children.
Hernandez said his father is an example of the American Dream. An immigrant from Guatemala, his father would work out of John F. Kennedy International Airport, selling food to construction workers out of a food truck. But over time and many long hours, he was able to buy his own food truck and start a small business.
“It was a very hard immigrant life,” Hernandez said. “But he eventually bought that truck and started a small business which is a classic American story.”
More information about the Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project can be found on its website.