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Alumna Discusses Careers in Refugee Law

By Katie Vloet

When Barbara Strack, '83, first heard about a job opening at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, she wasn't sold on the idea. "My view at the time was that the INS are the people I sue," she said during a recent career talk with law students.

But after talking with others, she decided to take the job, and she quickly learned that good people worked at the INS, and she could make important strides in an area she cared about: refugee law. "Sometimes, when you're inside, you can help to make a big difference," she told students.

Strack is now the chief of the Refugee Affairs Division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. She leads an office of 115 people. The scope of her job is vast. Of the approximately 12 million refugees in the world, 1 percent are resettled each year; of those, the United States takes about half. After the Department of State identifies an initial pool of refugees for potential resettlement to the U.S., USCIS officers interview the candidates and adjudicate their claims. USCIS works closely with the Department of State and other agencies to help ensure that people who intend to do harm to our country are not allowed to enter the U.S., while the Department of State arranges for medical exams and connects refugees with sponsors in the U.S.

"Every day, I get to work on a mission I believe in. And because it is such a mission-driven organization, it really attracts talented and committed professionals," she said.

Her interest in refugee and immigration law stemmed from Con Law—taught by then-professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff, now the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees—in which the class discussed the Due Process Clause and the treatment of noncitizens. She also stayed in touch with Aleinikoff through the years; indeed, it was he who first told her of the INS job.

After law school, Strack clerked in district court in Washington, D.C.; practiced in the D.C. office of O'Melveny & Myers, where she did some pro bono immigration work; and worked on a Senate subcommittee staff for Sen. Carl Levin. She encouraged students at the event—which was sponsored by the Office of Career Planning—to look beyond the most apparent job opportunities to discover what they really want to do.

"Given the recruiting machinery, you have to dig deeper for other opportunities. It's important to remember to explore your options and not just to go to a law firm because that is the most visible opportunity," she said.

Her willingness to look at job opportunities outside of law firms has served her well; now, she said, "I think I have the best job at the Department of Homeland Security."


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