Ali O’Brien, Defender of Immigrants’ Rights
By Dolores Eyler
Most graduation trips are a reward and relief from the vigor of academia. For Ali O’Brien, 29, it opened the doors to her career.
Upon matriculating from Trinity College, Hartford, O’Brien’s parents, Barry and
Anne, gave her a one-way ticket to Chile and a one-month course in English as a Second Language.
The Rye High School graduate had already spent one college year abroad there, where she also volunteered at Amnesty International in Santiago. The director there told O’Brien that if she really wanted to make a difference in the world, she should go to law school. O’Brien took her advice but deferred her acceptance to Cardozo School of Law in New York City until her trip was over. That ended up being two years later.
“I loved being in Santiago, with its history and stable government, and good paying jobs. Living in a foreign country gave me a different perspective and showed the effect U.S. politics has on others.” And of course, she became fluent in Spanish.
Returning to law school, O’Brien knew she wanted an international concentration. “My father’s father worked for the Foreign Service in Ireland, and my father’s aunt was one of the first female lawyers in Ireland.” She chose Cardozo Law because it centered on clinics. “You take on real cases under the supervision of a professor who is also a lawyer,” she explained. “That’s where the Innocence Project began.”
The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, as well as reforming the criminal justice system to prevent further injustices.
“Going to law school in New York affords an incredible opportunity for internships and externships,” O’Brien said. Following her dream, after her first year of law school she obtained a three-month internship with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Panama – and discovered what she did not want to do.
“I quickly realized the diplomatic corps was not for me,” O’Brien said. “You live in a bubble, with drivers, housing, security. So many of my fellow workers loved having [life with] the easy access badge. It was not substantive enough for me.”
The second year of law school, O’Brien focused on the Human rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic, run by four female law professors with human rights, international law, and immigration experience. “I loved the asylum work,” O’Brien said. “My first case was helping a 15-year old girl from El Salvador.”
Soon, she said, another summer experience changed her for life. “Several us worked at the border for a week during the immigration crisis. In law school, you learn big ideals – fairness, justice, upholding society’s ideals. At the very least, criminal defendants are given a defender. But immigration law is civil, so they don’t have that right. Immigration centers are essentially prisons. Many immigrants are afraid,” she continued. “There is a reason they are asking for protection.”
Upon graduation, O’Brien stayed at Cardozo, where she continued worked on an international human rights case involving the murders of Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. When it became clear the case would not go to trial anytime soon, O’Brien moved on.
“My short-term goal was to work in direct services for clients,” she said, so she applied to the Bronx Defenders office. Not accepted, she then picked five cities where she had friends – Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Denver, and Austin. San Francisco came through – but for a job in the agency’s Los Angeles office.
As is the case of many nonprofits, her team dissolved. O’Brien is now a lawyer for the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a social justice law firm that is one of the biggest deportation defenders in Los Angeles. There, she has worked with the Children’s Representation Project and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, visiting and screening incoming refugee children in four shelters, defending them in their removal proceedings.
“We see them first,” she said. “I compartmentalize a lot. I have to. It’s so overwhelming, I just have to step back sometimes.”
Recently, O’Brien was assigned to a team that represents detained adults with mental illnesses, who, by law, are provided legal protection.
“A while back, we hoped that the same rights, universal representation, that the mentally ill receive, would trickle down to immigrants and their children. But then Trump was elected.” O’Brien said that at least every other week, her agency receives notice that protective policies that have been in effect for years are being dismantled.
A child of immigrants herself, O’Brien said that she cringes when she is in court, and sees so many people representing themselves. “And so many accept deportation because they are tired of being in detention.”
O’Brien’s career goal is to teach legal clinics in law school, “but for now, I am focusing on the individual client.”
She loves living in Los Angeles, and has a boyfriend that is a successful comedy script writer. “I keep reminding myself that all of this has paid off personally, with a career that is emotionally rewarding and politically aware. But I am still a baby lawyer, with so much to learn.”
(To support O’Brien in what she is doing, she asked that we mention www.immdef.org/donate.)