In a corner where the walls are mostly glass overlooking the concrete of Columbia University's campus, Harriet Rabb re-enacts the day she was struck with her idea for a legal clinic to help immigrants.
"I was going through a huge stack of mail," the assistant head of Columbia's law school says. "I was on the phone and in my hand was a brochure for a new book on immigration lawyers. I literally had my hand over the third full trash can. I glanced at [the brochure] and said, 'This is it.'" She finished her phone conversation, thought about the idea the brochure had given her, and then called her husband to ask him what he thought. "'You've found it,' he said. Since then nobody has said anything but eureka! . . . and I still know that it's right, after a year of learning the subject, meeting the lawyers in the field, putting the course together, buying the books, seeking the funding. I like talking to you about it now; it excites me."
Mrs. Rabb's idea has taken shape -- a Columbia University legal clinic that combines teaching advanced law students with free assistance to immigrants in trouble with US immigration laws. With an annual budget of $150,000, the clinic will enable 16 students in the first year to handle real- life cases of immigrants.
The clinic represents a resurgence of interest in US immigrants and a sometimes heated debate over their influx and effect on American society.
In fact, the issue of immigrants may become to the 80s what black rights were to the 60s and women's rights to the '70s.
"I am a civil rights lawyer before all else," says Mrs. Rabb, who has supervised projects at Columbia that dealt with employment rights and welfare cases. But locally she is most famous as a lawyer who defended women's rights, especially in the 1978 case concerning equal employment for women at the New York Times.
"The woman is acknowledged to be a brilliant, ingenious, highly intelligent attorney, one of the most able in the country," says Dorothy Samuels, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "So it is a welcome sign that Harriet Rabb would turn her attention to the area of immigration, very much a developing area of the law."
Mrs. Rabb says her interest in civil rights stems from her parents, who both were physicians and "helpers. Doing good for people is the way of life. Making a lot of money is not considered a very high value."
She says that switching from employment issues to immigration does not mean that women's rights are now solidly founded.
"Primarily I got bored with doing the same thing. I handled employment issues for seven years. that's a long time for me to do one thing."
However, she still "presents the feminist perspective whenever I can" -- for example, as one of three women out of 20 members on the board of the Ford Foundation and one of many on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational fund.
During 1978 and 1979, while Mrs. Rabb was searching for a new topic for a clinic for Columbia students, she found that "a lot of civil rights lawyers and organizations were adrift, unable to say what subject or agenda would most capture their donor, their lawyers, and the public spirit."
Acknowledging that the draft may return as a major civil rights issue, Mrs. rabb says, "There is growing recognition that immigrants are among the most victimized and vulnerable persons in the society," with their problems rooted in the law.
With every non-indian American descended from people from over the seas, immigration here is as old as the nation. We are, as Oliver Wendell holmes observed, "the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people."
At the time Justice Holmes spoke, the immigration debate concerned shiploads of southern and eastern Europeans -- a debate that spawned the American Protective Association to counter alleged Roman Catholic conspiracies and the Immigration Restriction league, which advocated a literacy test intended to reduce the inflow.
Ambivalence -- the acceptance of immigrants and at the same time the erection of barriers against them -- has always been reflected in American policy. Mrs. Rabb says. On one side is the realization that the United States needs a labor supply, and that "almost all our grandparents got here that way, a general tradition that says, 'if us, why not them.'"
On the other hand, there is a suspicion of foreigners. "for one thing they usually are a different color and speak a different language; they eat different food, and sometimes it doesn't even smell good when it's cooking," Mrs. Rabb says, wrinkling her nose in mock distaste. "Then there's the threat to people at the bottom of the heap, fearful of competition."
At the moment, the US attitude reflects both the open and the protective attitudes. The Indochinese influx is evidence of the open, while constriction shows in the stance toward Haitians, Iranians, and Cubans.
Although the law permits no more than 290,000 immigrants into the country every year, 1978 saw 601,000 immigrants admitted because of a provision to allow in more Indochinese. In 1973 the influx was 400,000, that year's excess consisting of immediate relatives of Americans not covered by the quota.
But the real problem concerns the 3 to 5 million immigrants in the US who have no documents and live in fear of being caught and deported.The number of so-called illegal aliens is estimated from the number of "apprehensions" in any year. In the last three years, more than 1 million people, 90 percent of them Mexicans, have been found and deported each year. In 1970, the number of apprehensions was only 335,000.
Paul Schmidt, general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Washington, immigration law say "have suddenly become a big issue" because of such events as the influx of Indochinese, beginning in 1977, and the latest fracas over Iranian students.
"People are becoming more sensitive to population issues and people think link immigration to population," he adds.
"To me, that's fascinating stuff," Mrs. Rabb remarks. "That kind of social engineering. What impacts immigration will have on housing, health services, employment, schooling, welfare, so forth.
She may be pioneering efforts to change the immigration laws. She will be training not only herself but some students in this newly defined area of human rights.
Extremely circumspect about the effect her clinic could have on the laws, Mrs. Rabb says only, "We will increase the supply of people capable of handling cases honestly and well."
Mrs. Samuels, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is more outspoken: "I think people are beginning to face the fact that the INS doesn't work. It's discriminatory; it's abusive. The area of immigration laws has been the province of a very small group of private attorneys and the INS, which have operated almost like a combination of incompetent bureaucracy and secret police."
Mrs. Samuels cites as an example one of her cases, which involves people on buses being rounded up at the bus terminal of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"The INS comes in on a phone call from an unknown tipster and arrests buses of people, releasing those with white skin, but holding people with black or brown skin until they produce their green cards, proving they are legitimately here in the country."
Mrs. Rabb views the immigration crunch in the US in global terms.
"I don't mean to sound corny, but people are in motion all over the globe," she explains. "Chileans are fleeing; Ethiopians are fleeing; Sudanese are receiving vast numbers of Africans. The whole situation in the Far East doesn't require recounting. There are populations, not simply people, in motion. Tens of thousands of people.
"There are now governmental and nongovernmental institutions to help process the movement of people. In some sense that encourages the movement. I don't mean to suggest that if it were not there, people would simply settle down to starve or die in jails."
She says the movement is caused by poverty, repressive regimes, and heightened awareness of human rights. "People are suspecting that there is a better way, that they don't have to starve."
If she has a global perspective, it is her concern for the individual which fires her determination.
"We have an Australian who left the US with a multiple entry visa and whose entry is now not being honored by the US consul in England. I don't know why. We have a Thai who's working in an airport in New Jersey who needs help to stay. Because we're on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan], we expect to get a lot of Spanish-speaking immigrants, but so far we don't know if that's going to be true."
Legal advice is not all Harriet Rabb dispenses in the clinic. A Romanian woman with a graduate degree in chemistry came to her for help in finding a job to pay for further education. When she asked others how to find a job, "they suggested she wash floors, or work as a waitress, things which are so jarring to her sense of herself," Mrs. Rabb recalls.
"Where she comes from in Eastern Europe, a woman of her station would never have to wash floors. She said to me in broken English, in a way that was quite compelling, that she is not putting on airs. It's not that she has an inflated ego. She suddenly finds herself having to face what in her country would be social degradation. I suggested that she go to the university to the chemistry and physics labs, or go to a hospital. Even washing test tubes is better than washing floors. What she wanted from me was not legal advice. It was what any person would say.She was so happy when she left."
"It's starting to happen," she beams at the prospect of immigrants coming for help the next day. "I really do feel like a sap about it, but the people are incredible."