My summer got off to a slow start. Bogged down by three security background checks, I didn’t start my summer internship at the Department of Justice office at the U.S. Embassy in Rome until June. Luckily, once I started, I was able to hit the ground running.
My work at DOJ was fascinating. The office in Rome is a branch of the Office of International Affairs, which is nested under the DOJ Criminal Division. The office here typically focus on two general practice areas: evidence requests between the United States and Italy, also known as Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) requests, and extraditions. This introduced me to a diverse array of cases ranging from international art thefts, musical instrument counterfeiters, Sicilian mobsters, and computer hackers as well as human smugglers and traffickers.
One highlight of my work with DOJ was the day I was given a tour of the Italian Supreme Court, known as the Court of Cassation, by one of their Supreme Court justices. There are many differences between the two courts. For starters, instead of nine justices, they have several hundred. Instead of one singular higher court, they have over a dozen courts for final civil and criminal appeals. Your crime determines the court your appeal is heard in. The justice was very patient to showing me around the various courts, introducing me to several justices and attorneys, and answering all of my questions about this foreign court and its beguiling procedures.
One reason I accepted the summer internship at the embassy in Rome was both to work for DOJ but also to gain access to the various offices nested at the embassy that work on human rights and international development. My unique status as the only legal intern at the embassy this summer helped me contribute to several projects outside my internship with DOJ.
Aside from my work with DOJ, I helped the US Agency for International Development (USAID) office draft a contract for a Moroccan cold port so Moroccan farmers can get their crops to market more quickly and in better condition. I also spent time with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) regional office that focuses much of their efforts on refugee work.
The highlight of my work with USCIS was accompanying them on one of their quarterly refugee intake trips to Malta in early August. This was a fascinating trip to a country I knew hardly anything about. From a refugee perspective, Malta receives most of their refugees by boat from North Africa. All of the refugees we interviewed were from Somalia. Many had traveled through Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, through the Sahara with the help of a smuggler, and then to Libya where they boarded rafts for the treacherous voyage to Malta. Over the course of my two days there, we interviewed six refugee applicants who shared harrowing tales of persecution, abuse, violence, and in some cases, murder. In addition to observing these interviews, I was also able to interact with the NGO staff that was tasked with doing preliminary intake in the refugee applicants.
One afternoon in Malta after observing the refugee interviews, I arranged a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Malta with a refugee specialist. What impressed me most about this conversation was how active the U.S. has been in resettling the vast majority of the refugees that land in Malta. Statically speaking, the U.S. takes many more refugees from Malta than all the other EU counties combined. It was fascinating to hear the State Department perspective on the refugee situation in Malta coming from a staffer that was a native of Malta. In sum, my trip to Malta was a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe American refugee resettlement policy in action. Furthermore, given that Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the country, I couldn’t help but think I might actually run into one of the applicants in Minneapolis one day.
Without question, the highlight of my time in Rome was an unannounced visit to the embassy by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It turns out that she was vacationing in Italy and was invited by the ambassador stop by the embassy to speak with the staff. She spent about an hour with a crowd of less than 100 people. She delivered brief extemporaneous remarks to the gathered staff and took questions. She started her remarks with a brief statement about public service; thanking the staff for their service and reflecting on hers. I was fortunate enough to ask a question about what drove her to a career in public service at such a young age (I had read she was 9 when she decided she wanted to be a judge). Turns out she was a juvenile diabetic so she was unable to become her first dream job of detective. It was around this time that she started to watch Perry Mason. During one episode, Perry Mason made a motion to have a case dismissed and the judge agreed. This is when Justice Sotomayor realized that judges had all the power in the courtroom. I asked a follow up question about what I could do to motivate my peers to consider a career in public service. She felt that in many ways, a lawyer’s job is a service job though some lawyer’s service to the community is greater than others. Stressing the importance of pro-bono work, she also thought that law schools should do more to encourage graduates to be active community members, regardless of what their day job is.
Following remarks and questions, she took time to meet with anyone who wanted to chat with her and take a photo. Then she was off to explore Rome just like the rest of the tourist that visit Rome in July. Meeting Justice Sotomayor was a thrilling, once in a lifetime experience; One that I will never forget and would not have had but for this fellowship. Attached are several photos I took throughout my fellowship in Rome. They include photos taken from Malta, U.S. Embassies in Malta and Rome, the Ambassadors July 4th celebration, the steps of the Italian Court of Cassation, and of course me with Justice Sotomayor.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.