Westmont Magazine A Federal Case for Immigration
As a guide for blind skiers, Melanie Shender ’97 has led many sightless children down slick slopes. The avid skier developed a passion for such volunteer work after sharing her favorite sport with her mother, who is legally blind.
She also acted as a kind of guide when she clerked for the federal immigration court in San Francisco, researching issues like asylum and drafting opinions for 18 busy judges who each hear a 1,000 cases a year. Melanie landed the coveted, two-year position through the competitive U.S.Attorney General’s Honors Program after graduating from UC Davis School of Law.
Today she works for the civil division of the U.S Attorney’s Office in San Diego specializing in immigration. Representing the government, she argues for the immigration court’s position when plaintiffs appeal its decisions. She also handles petitions by aliens seeking citizenship or release from custody.
“I love working for the government and serving the public,” she says. “I’m interested in doing justice, in doing the right thing for everyone involved.”
Melanie has discovered widespread ignorance about the immigration courts, even among attorneys. Most immigration-related cases start there, and a recent law limits the appeal process. Contrary to popular opinion, the courts don’t provide a sure way for illegal aliens to gain legal status. “It’s just not that easy,” she says. “Relief from deportation is rarer than people think.”
Growing up with politically active parents, Melanie developed an early interest in national affairs. The summer before her junior year in college, she worked in the constituent outreach office at the White House. Her father, a speechwriter for the secretary of housing and urban development, helped her get the position. An English major at Westmont, she spent a semester in Washington, D.C., her senior year with an American University program and returned to the same White House office for her internship. She ended up staying two years.
Handling mail from people seeking help turned out to be an excellent experience. Some letters spoke passionately about issues like the spotted owl, but others documented serious health problems, custody disputes or hungry children. “It was like doing social work,” Melanie says. “We referred people to organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. It was inspiring to make a difference.”
Her next job in Washington took her around the world. As an assistant to the spokesperson for the secretary of defense, she traveled wherever the secretary went, visiting 40 countries and logging more than 275,000 miles.
Living in Washington exposed her to lawyers doing a lot of different things. “I realized a law degree was versatile and decided to go to law school,” she says. “I never expected to practice law, and I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy being an attorney.” She was involved with law review at Davis and served as senior articles editor, publishing a note on a 2001 immigration case. Coincidentally, it turned out to be a preview of her future career.
“I’ve been involved with a variety of cases that raise different issues,” she says. “I find them all interesting, even the obscure ones. I love what I do.”