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Law student organization aims to assist immigrant youths in legal processes

| Friday, October 27, 2017

Immigrant youths may be better informed of their legal rights in the near future thanks to the work of a group of Notre Dame Law students.

Impowerus — which was founded in September of 2016 by Katelyn Ringrose, a second-year law student — is an organization that connects immigrant youth to pro bono legal aid and has continued to compete in various innovation competitions in the South Bend community.

Ringrose said she first experienced the magnitude of the issue of information disparity as an employee of the Washington state public school district specializing in refugee students. She said she realized how many students had the technology but lacked the guidance to utilize their phone as a resource.

“Impowerus is about utilizing already-established resources and better educating clients on their legal rights,” Ringrose said.

The difference in legal outcome for youths facing deportation who have received some degree of legal advice compared to those who haven’t is staggering, Ringrose said.

Veronica Canton, a third-year law student and member of the Impowerus team, said Impowerus allows immigrants to learn about their rights in a comfortable setting.

“It’s important that people who may fear reaching out to the authorities or those in positions of power, have a place where they can share candidly and build trust before engaging in the next step of the legal system,” Canton said.

Canton, who immigrated from El Salvador when she was 9 years old, said she sees her background as a way to help establish trust between her clients and the organization.

Erika Gustin, a second-year law student and internal consultant of Impowerus, said the organization is working toward becoming more accessible.

“We’re finishing the process of rebranding the initial concept and making the entire presentation more cohesive, and now we’re focused on generating funds to go towards our beta-test,” she said.

The team operates less through titles and rather through collaboration, Gustin said.

“In many ways Katelyn is the backbone and we’re serving as the connective tissue, all working to see this idea flourish,” she said.

Impowerus has recently partnered with a South Bend organization, La Casa de Amistad, which has agreed to provide 100 youths to pair with five attorneys to run and troubleshoot the software.

“The information we receive from that sample will help us make adjustments as we go,” Gustin said.

These adjustments may include further protecting the information of clients, Canton said.

“Beta testing will allow us to address the elements of cyber security and confidentially through technology,” she said.

Currently made up entirely of Notre Dame law students, alumni and professors of the Eck Law School and Mendoza College of Business, the team is looking to expand in the near future, Canton said. She said the organization’s platform is very applicable to students in the South Bend community.

“If a student decides to move off campus, they might need assistance understanding their housing contract or addressing issues if their housing situation is not adequate,” Canton said.

Ringrose and Gustin both said the University and the city of South Bend have been extremely supportive of Impowerus, providing them with mentors through the IDEA Center, the South Bend Code School and the ESTEEM program, allowing them to continue their research. However, both said the law industry is slow to change and can be reluctant to catch up with technological innovation.

“It’s about scalability,” Ringrose said. “We envision this expanding and have identified this as an area of crucial need.”

Once testing is complete, the team will shift its focus to launching the website.

“As we continue to move forward, people have started to realize we aren’t simply students working on a project, but that we have a long term vision for an organization,” Canton said. “Although this may seem ambitious, but I hope to see Impowerus evolve into a national platform.”

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