RGSJ Symposium Recap: Justice Along Borders

By Mikaela Phillips, (J.D. Class of 2021), Senior Articles Editor and Symposium Coordinator of Volume 27 of the William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice.

On Friday, February 26 and Saturday, February 27, the William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice hosted its annual Symposium. This year’s theme was Justice Along Borders: Social Justice and Its Intersection with Law, Immigration, and Human Rights. The Symposium highlighted the articles published in the Journal’s Fall 2020 Special Issue.

In light of the pandemic, this year’s first-ever virtual Symposium created a unique opportunity broaden the Symposium’s audience and panelists, engaging those at home from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Given the real-world impact of this topic, I prioritized pushing the bounds of the traditional theoretical and academic nature of symposia to include not only legal scholars, but also practitioners from RAICES and Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, as well as a host of law school clinicians and students. The topics covered during the event ranged from the politics of membership and belonging (discussing immigration laws dating back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and current examples of “othering” and violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic) to a human right to family life (discussing conditions inside detention facilities in Texas and the psychological impact on children and families).

One of the most popular panels among students centered on reflections from law school immigration clinicians aiding clients during the Trump Administration. The panel featured Prof. Kate Evans, Prof. Stacy Kern-Scheerer, Prof. Sarah Paoletti, and Mel Dostis, a third-year law student involved with William & Mary’s Immigration Clinic. The panelists described not only the types of legal issues that came through the clinics’ doors, but also the emotional impact and secondary trauma of working on these cases. Prof. Kern-Scheerer discussed the importance of defining success for herself and clinic students as not limited to wins in court, but also providing resources and opportunities for clients to feel and be heard. Prof. Evans echoed that sentiment, stating “the Trump Administration made every victory feel like a watershed moment.”

As a student interested in Supreme Court culture, my favorite panel focused on Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Dr. Lázaro Lima discussed the historical and cultural significance of Justice Sotomayor as the first Latina woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as the shift in her jurisprudence from a more centrist lower court judge to the leading progressive voice on the Court today. Prof. Karla McKanders presented on her article, Deconstructing Invisible Walls: Sotomayor’s Dissents in an Era of Immigration Exceptionalism. Her piece focuses on Justice Sotomayor’s dissents in Trump v. Hawaii (travel ban case), Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California (DACA), as well as Wolf v. Cook County and Barr v. East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (both highlighting the Trump Administration’s “reflexive use of petitioning the Court before cases are ripe for judicial review.”). Prof. McKanders argues Justice Sotomayor’s immigration dissents challenge deference historically granted to executive actions and force us to “reconceptualize the ways in which the immigration system historically has abrogated the rights of immigrants of color.” Tying both presentations together, the panelists discussed how these dissents are not strictly for legal audiences, but how they perform in the cultural sphere to influence views on immigration policy and might serve as a catalyst for reform.

Overall, the Journal’s Symposium was a success and fantastic educational opportunity to learn more about interdisciplinary and intersectional issues in the immigration context. I am a firm believer that it is never too late to get involved in social justice conversations. For those interested in learning more about the topics discussed at Symposium or other social justice literature, please visit RGSJ’s scholarship repository.