Akinnawonu’s appointment to the fellowship was announced by Dean Chris Guthrie. “I’m excited about the contributions Funmi Akinnawonu will make while serving on the legal staff at the Mississippi Center for Justice. I’m also grateful that Vanderbilt is able to help her launch her career as an advocate for those who otherwise would not have access to legal representation through the George Barrett Social Justice Fellowship,” he said.
Applicants for the Barrett Fellowship propose one-year projects at a legal nonprofit organization. Akinnawonu plans to expand the MCJ’s immigration law practice, a need she became aware of while working at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson last summer. On Aug. 9, 2019, immigration authorities arrested and detained 680 undocumented workers at seven poultry plants in Mississippi on the first day of school, leaving many children with no adult at home.
“Some individuals were released within a short time, but some still remain in detention,” Akinnawonu said. “I saw lawyers coming together to represent these immigrants, and the Mississippi Center for Justice was coordinating the response from legal groups and pro bono attorneys. My project is to provide direct representation to immigrants who still lack legal representation, focusing on individuals who have criminal convictions or charges because they are less likely to find outside representation from other legal nonprofits.”
Akinnawonu feels well-prepared to start work representing immigration clients. Her parents first immigrated to the United Kingdom, where she was born, from Nigeria, and later immigrated to the United States, settling on Long Island, New York. They became naturalized citizens of the U.S. in 2013. “As a child I watched my father navigating the immigration process and found it very interesting,” she said.
She earned her undergraduate degree at New York University and worked as a nonprofit fundraiser and campaign organizer before entering law school, supporting Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Lambda Legal. “I really admired the lawyers who worked at those organizations, and I wanted to practice in the public interest,” Akinnawonu said, “but I didn’t put together my interests in immigration and practicing public interest law until my first semester in the Immigration Practice Clinic.”
She worked in the Immigration Practice Clinic under the supervision of Clinical Professor of Law Karla McKanders for two semesters.
Akinnawonu looks forward to expanding the legal resources available through the MCJ to undocumented immigrants still detained following the ICE raid last August. “At least 40 individuals still lack representation, and I have found no statewide project dedicated to addressing the criminal consequences of the raid and how criminal convictions affect immigration claims,” she said.
The fellowship is provided through the George Barrett Social Justice Program, which was endowed in 2015 by Darren Robbins ’93 in honor of his friend and mentor, George E. Barrett ’57, a nationally renowned civil rights lawyer, and is administered by the VLS Office of Public Interest Law, directed by Assistant Dean for Public Interest Spring Miller.