Professor Lenni Benson and Safe Passage Project

“If You’re Like Me, You Can’t Sit By”: The New York Times Spotlights Professor Benson and the Safe Passage Project

Professor Lenni Benson and Safe Passage Project

A recent New York Times column spotlights Professor Lenni Benson and the Safe Passage Project, the nonprofit she founded at NYLS.

The piece, by Tina Rosenberg, captures Safe Passage Project’s core work—representing unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in deportation proceedings. Safe Passage is now the leading provider of these services in New York City, a fact Rosenberg highlights in her column.

“If a lawyer matters to an adult—and it really, really does,” Rosenberg writes, “it’s even more important for a child.”

Her piece also notes that family separation policies have resulted in new waves of unaccompanied minors, and immigration detention facilities sometimes hold children for weeks at a time, as they await court proceedings.

“There Was a Little Boy at the Table White-Knuckling the Chair”

Rosenberg recounts a moving story that underscores the importance of Safe Passage Project’s work:

In 2012, Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School, started visiting immigration courts for a report she was writing on how to improve them. In one courtroom, the judge was hearing the cases of children. “There was a little boy at the table white-knuckling the chair, with no one to help him,” she said. He was about eight. His mother, who was undocumented, was afraid to come into the building.

Professor Benson, who knew the judge, asked if she could act as a friend of the court. She said that the judge and the attorney for the government—whose job it was to try to get the boy deported—were both relieved. After talking to the boy through an interpreter, she asked the judge to postpone his case until she could get him a lawyer.

She went across the street to the boy’s mother. Then she called some of her former students, and got one to take the boy’s case for no pay.

Students and Alumni Make an Impact

Since Safe Passage Project was founded, NYLS students in the Immigration Law and Litigation Clinic have served as advocates for unaccompanied children and teenagers facing deportation. Alumni and outside volunteers have also contributed.

In the process, NYLS has become known as one of the country’s strongest immigration law programs. In addition to its Immigration Law and Litigation Clinic, NYLS launched an Asylum Clinic, which represents refugees seeking safety in the United States, including people fleeing LGBTQ discrimination and domestic violence, and has won asylum for numerous individuals.

The column’s title is a quote by Professor Benson that also serves as its concluding line: “If You’re Like Me, You Can’t Sit By. This Is America.”

Read the full piece.