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Fluent in Chinese, lawyer Lauren Burke '06 helps immigrants understand their rights

Undocumented immigrants and their children typically fall under a complex gray area of our country's legal system. But those legal intricacies shouldn't prevent the immigrant community from knowing their rights, according to Lauren Burke '06, an immigration lawyer and an adjunct clinical professor at Brooklyn Law School.

"The law is a tool that should be utilized by everyone, especially immigrants," Burke says. "My work as a lawyer isn't just legal representation, it's also a collaboration that helps a community empower themselves."

Burke, who earned her law degree at New York University, is the founder and executive director of Atlas: DIY, a cooperative center in New York City offering legal, mental health, career, educational and life skills services for immigrant youth and their allies.

The center, which opened in January, uses the acronym DIY to simultaneously express "do-it-yourself" and "developing immigrant youth." Its 85 young members not only benefit from the services offered at Atlas: DIY; they also sit on the board, take part in all major decisions, and volunteer at the center on a rotating basis.

"The center addresses the need for a safe space for undocumented youth of all cultures, and because it's cooperative, the young people are truly a part of it," Burke says.

One of the center's priorities is outreach and education about the government's "deferred action" policy announced in June. Under this policy, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. under the age of 16 and who meet specific educational and other requirements are allowed to remain in the country legally.

This summer, Burke worked on Atlas: DIY's month-long summer program to coach participants on the college application process. While the program covers typical topics like essays and standardized testing, students also learn about colleges with immigrant-friendly policies and migrant-targeted scholarships. Burke took the students on college tours throughout the northeast, including a visit to Connecticut College.

Burke's commitment to empowering immigrant communities extends well beyond her work with immigrant youth. She is also the first in-house staff attorney at the New York Asian Women's Center (NYAWC), an organization that helps women and their children overcome domestic violence, human trafficking and other forms of abuse. Immigration law is critical to NYAWC's clients, most of whom are immigrants or have no immigration status.

Fluent in Mandarin, Burke provides legal support in a variety of areas, including immigration consultations, representation and "Know Your Rights" training.

At Connecticut College, Burke majored in East Asian studies along with a second self-designed major in "socio-cultural dimensions of international relations," which combined anthropology, psychology and international relations. She was also a scholar in the College's Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts - popularly known as CISLA - a distinctive program that allows students to internationalize any major with special coursework, language certification, an international internship and a senior project.

During Burke's CISLA internship, she taught children in rural China and researched ethnic minority education in China. "At Conn, you could really make your own destiny," Burke says. "If something's not available, you can start it yourself. The experience I got from designing my own academic program definitely helped me start my own non-profit and a new legal program at NYAWC."

- By Tom Owen

October 16, 2012