Law School Symposium Grapples With 'Undocumentation'

Students and faculty gathered at Harvard Law School last week to discuss the difficulties and limitations that undocumented immigrants in the United States and the Middle East face as part of the Immigration Project's annual symposium.

Co-sponsored by Law School organizations La Alianza and the Harvard European Law Association, the conference—themed “Undocumentation"—spanned three days. Poet Marlene Mayren, a leader of an Indianapolis movement for undocumented people’s rights, delivered the keynote slam poetry performance Wednesday.

Thursday’s panel, titled “Undocumented Students in the U.S.,” focused on the challenges domestic undocumented individuals face, emphasizing how Law School students can help young undocumented people. The last panel, which took place on Friday and was titled “Documentation in the Middle East Refugee Crisis,” highlighted the complexity of the documentation process in the context of the refugee crisis.

Harvard Law student Niku Jafarnia, who helped lead the symposium, said that the conference covered multiple facets of immigration—from the international refugees to domestic undocumented issues.

Jafarnia said that planning for the event started in October, but after the election in November, Harvard Immigration Project changed the domestic panel so that it was “more focused on students.”


“Issues of undocumentation span more than students in the U.S., but I think right now that’s something so important for us to be talking about—how to help our peers who are on college campuses and what sanctuary campus means and why these things are necessary why we need education to be given to undocumented people,” Jafarnia said.

In December, University President Drew G. Faust said that Harvard would not designate itself a “sanctuary campus,” arguing that the term has no legal significance and could further endanger undocumented students. Jafarnia said she thought the decision was “unfortunate.”

“It’s incredibly important that people in positions of power stand up for those who need protection the most, and even actions such as stating Harvard is a sanctuary campus regardless of what that actually entails,” Jafarnia said. “I think would have been a really strong statement out of support for a lot of the students here.”

Harvard has increased the support it offers undocumented students since Trump assumed power. Among other measures, the University has designated a staff member at the College and hired a full-time attorney to support undocumented students.

At Friday’s event, panelist Rachel Levitan, an associate vice president of the refugee advocacy group HIAS, described the need to “recognize the role that documentation plays in the lives of forced migrants globally.”

“Documentation really unlocks people’s access to basic human rights and with those rights, people have access to dignity in their daily lives,” Levitan said.

Panelists focused on recognizing the number of refugees in the Middle East seeking “access to durable solutions” such as “access to protection, human rights, and dignity in countries of asylum.” Levitan said legal documentation is crucial to attaining these rights.

“In order to be able to access those rights, one, you need to have access to ID documents or documentation that becomes support of evidence of one’s refugee claim,” she said after the panel.

—Staff writer Alice S. Cheng can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @alicescheng.

—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.