Professor Theo Liebmann helped organize legal defense for Central American children refugees

Professor Theo Liebman, a expert in the practice of immigration law.
Professor Theo Liebman, a expert in the practice of immigration law.

Hofstra Professor Theo Liebmann stepped in to help organize legal defense from the first moments of last year’s child refugee crisis. Professor Liebman is one of the most skilled practitioners in the complex area of law at the intersection of asylum and juvenile protection.

Theo’s practice of law is founded in his rich involvement in questions of ethics. A philosophy student at Yale University, he now runs Hofstra’s Youth Advocacy Clinic and teaches legal ethics there. He found his passion for the representation of children while he was still in law school at Georgetown’s juvenile justice clinic.

“I really liked working with the young people there, with their mix of confidence and naiveté,” he recalls of his student days. He says that working in the clinic taught him that “if you can get beneath their initial resistance you have a chance to help them in a way that can make a big difference in their lives.”

After several years practicing law with the New York City Human Rights Commission and the Legal Aid Society, Theo moved to Hofstra where he created the Youth Advocacy Clinic. He loves the job there because it allows him to combine “teaching, mentoring young lawyers, practicing real world law, changing people’s lives, and influencing the profession through scholarship.”

When he started as director of the clinic in 1999 he had not even heard of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), the immigration legal status on which he would soon become one of Long Island’s leading experts. It was only when former CARECEN attorney Lauris Wren joined the law school’s faculty that he learned that undocumented children who had been abused or abandoned had an opportunity for immigration status. The problem was that the application process was complex and time consuming, involved legal appearances between both state and Federal courts, as well as representation at the Department of Homeland Security. The two professors divided the work between them, with Lauris handling most of the immigration process and Theo’s clinic dealing with the Family Court side.

When the Central American child refugee crisis sent three thousand children fleeing gangs to Long Island in 2014 to 2015, Theo was appalled by the stories of danger they told.

“They were all leaving because what was happening in Central America was bad enough to drive them out of their homes,” he says. “They are escaping extreme violence in their home towns, often right outside the homes they live in,” he adds, saying that “they are so desperate to escape it that they are willing to make a dangerous journey to a place they don’t know to get away.”

Although Theo came to immigration-related work in the middle of his career, he says that he is “so happy that this was an area of practice I was introduced to.”

There are a lot of difficulties involved in the practice of immigration law, which he calls “complex, Byzantine, and inconsistent,” but he has become an expert on teasing out the complexity. Fortunately for us, he shared what he knew with CARECEN, Catholic Charities, and several other non-profits defending the children. His day-by-day involvement has been lifesaving for these boys and girls.

He will be honored for his work next month by CARECEN.