Archive | Pro bono RSS feed for this section

BR Clients of the Month- January 2015

5 Jan

Irma and Kenny

At a time of year when we honor togetherness and fresh starts, we are comforted to know that Benach Ragland clients, Kira and her four-year-old son Ricky, have finally been granted asylum and are reunited with their husband/father, Andre, here in the United States.*  This family of faith was tornapart by targeted and systematic violence at the hands of the M-18 gang, the de facto government in Guatemala, all because they preached about peace and encouraged non-violence in their community – in the eyes of the M-18, a message of disloyalty and dissidence that needed to be eradicated.

In 2010, Kira and Andre, a deacon in the local church and the M-18’s main target, decided that he should flee in an attempt to save the family and protect their unborn son Ricky.  They believed and hoped that Andre was the gang’s only target; they were wrong.  Immediately following Andre’s escape to the United States, the gang began its relentless pursuit and persecution of Kira and their son because the gang believes that families breed disloyalty.  They threatened her with rape and murder, restrained her and beat her face bloody on multiple occasions, threatened to cut her unborn son out of her belly, threatened to kidnap Ricky after he was born, and grabbed and held Ricky at knifepoint on multiple occasions.  The gang made their reasons clear: Andre, a man of faith who preaches his message of peace and non-violence against their way of life, is their enemy who must be targeted and punished for his disloyalty and dissidence.  Since Andre was no longer available to target and punish, Kira and their young son Ricky would be his proxy.  By harming them, the M-18 could continue to harm Andre and punish him for his message of peace and non-violence – his disloyalty and dissidence.  Kira went to the police twice, begging for help, but they turned her away, refusing to provide meaningful protection.  After first escaping to her sister’s home, the gang pursued and found Kira there, held her four-year-old son Ricky at knifepoint, and threatened them again.  With no place to hide, Kira and Ricky fled to the United States in search of safety.

After four years filled with horrific and nearly daily violence, followed by a harrowing journey to the United States, Kira and Ricky sought help from a U.S. immigration ofIMG_1537ficer to beg for protection.  Instead of help, these refugees were among the first to be detained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, a makeshift detention facility in the middle of the desert, hidden out of sight and out of mind as the Obama Administration sanctioned a series of procedures meant to deport them as quickly as possible right back to the danger from which they had fled.  But the arrival of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s pro bono project halted the deportation of Kira, Ricky, and the hundreds of other mothers and children detained in Artesia.  Benach Ragland Partner Dree Collopy spent a week volunteering in Artesia to provide pro bono legal services to women and children.  While there, she met Kira and Ricky and was inspired by their courage and strength.  She took their case pro bono, demanding compliance with U.S. and international law and due process on their behalf.

Ricky's additions to Dree's notes.

Ricky’s additions to Dree’s notes.

After five months of detention in inhumane conditions, two lengthy bond hearings, one status hearing, three hearings on the merits of their asylum claim, generous donations to secure an expert witness, Dree’s several trips to Denver and Artesia, and hundreds of pro bono hours by Benach Ragland and the volunteer AILA attorneys on the ground in Artesia, Kira and Ricky have been granted asylum and released from detention.  They are finally safe and have been reunited with Andre in the United States.  2015 is going to be a good year.

FOBR Olsi Vrapi Tries to Represent a Child in Artesia, New Mexico

21 Jul

kob ice facility artessia

Olsi Vrapi is a Friend of Benach Ragland who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He recently found himself on the front line of the battle of how to handle the major influx of refugee children at the Southern Border.  In this chilling blogpost entitled “The Artesia Experience,” Olsi describes his experience visiting his client in the new facility in Artesia, New Mexico where the government is detaining Central American children and families.  His conclusion is brutally honest:

My impression of the Artesia makeshift detention center is that it is a due process travesty.  Is it really coincidence that a detention center was set up overnight in the middle of nowhere where the closest immigration lawyer or non-profit (which by the way can’t provide direct representation) is 3+ hours away?  In the few weeks it has been in operation, there have been no non-profits doing legal orientation programs, there are no non-profits that provide direct representation to those detained there and asylum interviews and hearings are happening so fast and are so short that even the most diligent detainees can’t get counsel fast enough to be advised before they are interviewed or are given any meaningful opportunity to tell their stories.  It appears the government is paying lip service to due process and just going through the statutory and regulatory requirements as fast as possible so they can give a semblance of compliance while the airplane to central America is warming its engines in nearby Roswell.  This is the same as a child being asked to clean his room, and he stuffs everything under the bed to “comply” with the command and ends up making it worse, except in our cases it’s not a matter of putting dirty laundry in the hamper, it’s women and children that can get killed if returned home.  As a father of three small children, I can’t help the kids’ analogies.

To make matters worse, Congress is using the crisis as an attempt to roll back well-established asylum protections.  Yesterday, Dree Collopy wrote about the horrendous legislation being proposed by Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would undermine critical protections for refugees and asylum-seekers.  As bad as the current system is, Congress can make it worse.  The Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition has a good summary of the legislation and provides a quick link to contact Congress.

Thanks to Olsi for representing families in Artesia and sharing their story with the world.

We will keep you informed about pro bono opportunities and donation opportunities as this crisis continues to unfold.

 

Catholic University Law Students Develop Novel Legal Argument that is Gaining Traction in the Courts

8 Jul

This post was written by Adilene Nunez and Francisco Lopez, law students at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

 

Meeting our client and gaining his trust

In the fall of 2013, a man sat in an office at Catholic Charities awaiting our arrival. Neither of us had ever advocated on behalf of a client, so we were both nervous. Although our professors trained us in our clinic about how to interview a client and how to gather the facts and evidence to build a strong case, we were not sure what to expect from our client.

We walked into the office where our client, Joe[1], was waiting. We spoke with him about our Immigration Litigation Clinic, explained our roles, and began the process of getting to know our client. We listened to his story and asked him questions. He was concerned, however, with our abilities to represent him. He didn’t say it, but it was notable in his face. Joe was reserved and had few things to say at this initial meeting. He did not smile. When we asked him the reason for his visit to Catholic Charities, Joe responded that in his quest to become a lawful permanent resident, he had been defrauded by a notario. Immediately, we both understood why Joe was apprehensive, and we recognized that we would have to work to gain his trust.

stop notario fraud

            Over the next few months, we had extensive meetings with Joe, constantly called him with questions or requests for documents, and we made sure that he was always aware of what we were doing and what the next steps would be. Gathering facts and getting the client to open up and trust us was a difficult process because Joe fled his native Guatemala during the civil war and he had never told anyone such private, personal, and painful details. However, Joe fled his native country over thirty years ago, so at times it was difficult for Joe to remember details of the trip that placed him in deportation proceedings. It was our compassion and diligence that, in the end, led Joe to say to us, “Yo confió en el trabajo que están haciendo,I trust in the work you are doing, as he smiled at us.

Keeping the case on the docket

On its face, Joe’s case appeared to be a straight forward adjustment of status case. He was a Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) beneficiary,[2] a model resident, and hard working individual. However, as we continued to research the issues in our case, like advance parole and admission, we realized that our biggest struggle was going to be convincing the immigration judge to keep the case on her docket. That was because, statutorily, someone who returns to the United States on a grant of parole, generally, cannot adjust status in front of an immigration judge.[3] We wanted to keep the case in front of the immigration judge because Joe’s case had been pending in immigration court for almost thirty years, he had been deceived and defrauded by a notario, and if the judge chose to send the case to USCIS for adjudication, we would not be able to see the case through until the end as the representatives Joe trusted.

We spent about five months conducting extensive research and we had several meetings with our supervisors to work on strategy and to craft creative legal arguments. There were times when we felt extremely overwhelmed from our research because it seemed that we were dealing with a novel issue. Joe’s facts were complicated and involved two eras of immigration law: present day and pre-IIRAIRA immigration law.

We needed to prove that Joe had already been admitted, so he would not be designated an arriving noncitizen.[4] Being classified as an arriving noncitizen in immigration court leaves limited options for individuals in removal proceedings.[5] Therefore, an arriving noncitizen classification should not be conceded too easily. However, Joe was a TPS beneficiary, a status that we hoped we could use to our advantage in proving Joe’s statutory eligibility for adjustment of status. We wanted to argue that when Joe was granted TPS he was inspected and admitted into the United States, as this would allow Joe to adjust his status in front of the immigration judge. Admittedly, arguing that a grant of TPS is an admission was going to be a challenge as we had more negative than favorable case precedent on the matter.[6] The case that was most favorable, Flores v. USCIS,[7] was not binding; it was merely persuasive authority arising outside of our circuit. The plain language of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Code of Federal Regulations, and case precedent formed our argument in Joe’s favor.

Additionally, with the help of our professors, and after several individual moot hearings, we composed two briefs, one was the brief in support of Joe’s adjustment application, and the second was a supplemental brief where we argued that Joe’s grant of TPS was an inspection and admission. We planned the supplemental brief as a last resort and developed persuasive oral arguments for our individual hearing before the immigration judge.

briefs

Joe was very cooperative and maintained a positive attitude throughout this process, even after we explained the possibility that the immigration judge might not be able to exercise jurisdiction over his case. He said that he had faith in us and in the work that we had done, and that he could only hope for the best. Joe was different from the person we met in the fall. He smiled and felt comfortable communicating with us. He went from stoic to wanting to make us laugh. We were glad to see him happy.

Finding justice for Joe

When Joe’s individual hearing date arrived in late April, we were confident that we had done everything possible to prepare for Joe’s case. Our goal was to convince the immigration judge that both the regulation and case law supported our position that she could exercise jurisdiction over Joe’s case. Joe appeared confident about offering his testimony and communicating his story to the immigration judge. However, things did not go as planned. The immigration judge couldn’t move beyond the charging document. Since Joe’s case had been pending for about thirty years, his charging document was an Order to Show Cause, and since Joe had most recently returned to the country on a grant of advance parole the immigration judge believed that an Order to Show Cause wasn’t the proper charging document.

After a lengthy discussion with Joe, our supervisors, and DHS counsel, we all agreed that termination of the proceedings was the best option. So while we were unable to tell Joe’s story that day and give the many reasons why he deserves to be granted permanent residency, he now seeks adjustment of status before USCIS without the procedural encumbrances of deportation proceedings. Despite the unfinished nature of Joe’s case that day, Joe received closure because, by terminating deportation proceedings, we removed the impediment that precluded him from adjusting his status before USCIS for all of those years. It was not justice denied for Joe; it is merely justice delayed for Joe and his family.

Balt Imm Ct

Setting our own precedent

While we did not achieve the result we wanted that day in court, we were very proud of our work. As student attorneys, we were novices when it came to complex immigration issues, but we did not allow this to discourage us. The challenges we encountered with finding positive binding precedent did not change our position that our client deserved to become a lawful permanent resident. We persisted in finding an answer for our client.

We wrote a persuasive supplemental brief using various legal authorities. Despite the fact that the immigration judge could not accept jurisdiction, she complimented us on our work. We wanted others to benefit from our hard work, so we shared a redacted copy of Joe’s brief with the American Immigration Council, an organization that was litigating the issue of whether TPS was an inspection admission. A few weeks after Joe’s individual hearing in April, we saw that the American Immigration Council had developed arguments similar to our innovative arguments that TPS may constitute an inspection and admission. In Ramirez v. Dougherty,[8] Ramirez a TPS beneficiary from El Salvador, was seeking to adjust his status. Ramirez argued that he should be granted LPR status based on his TPS status. It was reassuring for us to see that the very same arguments we made in our brief were compelling enough to succeed in a different circuit.

circuits

It showed us that with the guidance of our brilliant professors, we were capable of dissecting the complicated immigration statute to develop strong, persuasive analysis. It also was a valuable lesson learned that when the law doesn’t seem to be on your client’s side, you can develop creative legal arguments to change it.

The toughest part was saying goodbye

Although Joe’s case was riddled with complications and complexities, the toughest part wasn’t getting creative with the regulations and case law. The toughest part of this entire process was saying goodbye to our client after the individual hearing. We got to know Joe not just as a client, but as a person, as someone for whom we were confident we could get justice. Joe got to know us and wished us success in our future careers as attorneys. We got to know his wife and his children. We learned about his dedication to his family. We spent time with Joe and his family at their home during our witness preparation sessions. We grew to care about Joe as both a client and as a friend. And best of all, Joe was able to trust an attorney through this process. He had been so terribly hurt by the notario that we were both pleasantly surprised when Joe finally opened up and put his trust in us. On our last phone call with Joe as his student attorneys, he thanked us for working with him. We told our client, and friend, that the honor was ours. This was truly one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in our professional careers.

[1]Name and other identifying information have been changed.

[2] Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a humanitarian benefit found under Section 244 of the Act. The Department of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS because conditions temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely or if a country cannot handle the return of its nationals. The Attorney General may designate a country for TPS if the country has an ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or if there are other extraordinary conditions preventing a noncitizen from returning to the country. See INA § 244(b)(1).

[3] A parolee is considered an arriving noncitizen under 8 C.F.R. § 1001.1(q). An arriving noncitizen is an applicant for admission who is coming or attempts to come to the United States at a port-of-entry.

[4] There are three classifications in removal proceedings: (1) an arriving noncitizen, (2) a noncitizen present in the United States who has not been admitted or paroled, or (3) a noncitizen who has previously been admitted, but is now deportable. See generally INA § 240(c).

[5] Matter of Silitonga, 25 I&N Dec. 89 (BIA 2009) (immigration judge has no jurisdiction to adjudicate an adjustment of status application for an arriving noncitizen unless the noncitizen has been placed in removal proceedings after returning to the United States on advance parole to pursue a previous filed application); Matter of Oseiwusu, 22 I&N Dec. 19 (BIA 1988) (arriving noncitizens are generally ineligible for bond);

[6] Matter of Sosa Ventura, 25 I&N Dec. (BIA 2010) (TPS does not create an admission); see also Bracamontes v. Holder, 675 F.3d 380, 386 (4th Cir. 2012) (recognizing that adjustment of status is not an admission for purposes of a waiver of a criminal ground of inadmissibility under Section 212(h) of the Act); but see Flores v. USCIS, 718 F.3d 548 (6th Cir. 2013) (arguing plain language in the context of section 244 of the Act and the broader context of the statute as a whole show Congressional intent that TPS beneficiaries can adjust under section 245 of the Act).

[7] 718 F.3d 548 (6th Cir. 2013).

[8] C13-1236Z, 2014 WL 2439819 (W.D. Wash. May 30, 2014)

 

 

GUEST BLOG by Catholic University Law Students: “From Tragedy to Triumph, One Man’s Second Chance”

1 May

Ana and Brittni

By Ana Sami and Brittni Downs, CUA Immigration Litigation Clinic Students

Our work with Joe* started with a bang. Our Immigration Litigation Clinic had just begun when we were assigned his case and told that he had a master calendar hearing scheduled within a few days. With the help of our supervising professors, Dree Collopy and Michelle Mendez, we rushed to prepare for our first court appearance. Although we were nervous for our first court appearance, which we did not anticipate would happen so soon after our first meeting with Joe, our nerves were overshadowed by the urgency of his case. Joe found his way to Catholic Charities after an Immigration Judge had given him one final chance to find legal counsel. Since immigration removal proceedings are civil as opposed to criminal, Joe did not have access to government appointment counsel, and therefore, needed to find a pro bono attorney on his own. It was meant to be; Joe’s need was met with our desire to represent an indigent individual before the U.S. Immigration Courts. From September through April, we developed and prepared Joe’s case.

The Master Calendar Hearing

Our first court appearance went smoothly given the short time we had to prepare. While it was a quick master calendar hearing, it gave us an opportunity to get to know our judge, and to become accustomed to interacting with DHS counsel. As we were the first team in our clinic to appear in court, we were excited to recount to our classmates our experiences and tell them what we had learned. We enthusiastically provide our classmates tips, just as we benefited from their courtroom tips as their own cases progressed. While we did not know much about Joe at the time of the master calendar hearing, it was clear that he needed us. After the whirlwind of the first hearing settled, we buckled down and began meeting with Joe more. We learned about him in small increments. Joe’s story began as a young car mechanic in Sierra Leone. He explained to us that he, his wife, and three young children escaped the war-torn country of Sierra Leone in the late 90’s when Joe’s aunt assisted him in applying to come to the United States. Getting Joe’s paperwork together, however, was fraught with dangers. Because the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone had been evacuated as a result of the dangerous conditions, Joe would have to travel through a war zone to neighboring Guinea and stay in a U.N. refugee camp for a full year in order to process his diversity visa paperwork. Throughout this time, Joe lost many family members at the hands of the “rebels” who killed indiscriminately.

Learning about Joe’s Tragic Past

After narrowly escaping death, Joe was finally able to bring his family to the United States. Although Joe was now in a safe country where his life was significantly better and where he went on to have three more children, he would often think about the brutality he witnessed in Sierra Leone, which to this day, weighs heavily on his mind. As time went on, Joe had a couple of run-ins with the law, but paid his fines and learned his lesson. Although Joe was a permanent resident, one of his run-ins with the law resulted in a misdemeanor conviction and was the type that could prompt the Department of Homeland Security to try to deport him. That day came ten long years after his conviction and after his fines were paid, despite the fact that he had kept a clean criminal record since then. Being placed in removal proceedings before the Immigration Court so long after his conviction took Joe by surprise and it could not have come at a worse time, as Joe was struggling to find employment.

Developing the Legal Strategy

Upon reviewing the facts and the law, along with our professors, we decided that Joe qualified for Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) Cancellation of Removal. We began learning the law of LPR Cancellation, and found out that the issues on Joe’s record did not disqualify him from this type of relief. However, while Joe qualified statutorily, discretion would weigh heavily to determine whether he would be granted LPR Cancellation. In our quest to construct a complete picture of Joe’s life and to prepare a court filing that would meet our burden of proof, we quickly learned that gathering information and preparing his evidence would require herculean efforts because Joe did not possess many of the documents we needed. In addition, his living situation was unstable, and therefore he was unable to maintain organized records.

Joe’s Wife Succumbs to Breast Cancer

While gathering documentation from such a vulnerable client was tough, nothing could have prepared us for what we heard on the line one cold January morning, a few days after school was back in session following our holiday break. Joe’s voice quivered over the phone as he said, “My wife just passed away.” Joe’s wife tragically passed away in the hospital after a long bout with breast cancer. We were in shock, especially because we had just communicated with Joe’s wife a few weeks ago as she happily recounted that she had just become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and then expressed her concern about Joe being in removal proceedings. Our worry for Joe grew as a flood of traumatic memories surrounding death and loss overwhelmed him. While we gave Joe space to grieve, we knew now, more than ever, that our mission to keep him here for the benefit of his U.S. citizen children was vital.

Preparing for the Individual Hearing

The race to collect documentation continued as our filing date in April was fast approaching. But, throughout the daily tasks of gathering information, we also had many memorable moments during the course of our representation of Joe. Perhaps the most solemn memory of our many long hours of meetings with him included the time when we read him the final draft of his affidavit, which we had worked tirelessly on to make sure it was an accurate representation of his life and voice. He sat and silently listened to his own story recounted to him, his head slightly bent. As we finished, reading the last sentence to him aloud, a stream of tears flowed silently from his somber eyes. Joe’s story was heartbreaking and we had to be the best and strongest possible advocates for him.

Joe’s application slowly came together with the help of his friends from church and his family. We sought their assistance in many ways, from being witnesses to arranging rides so that Joe could meet with us at Catholic Charities. Meeting with him was tough as Joe had found a job that required him to work throughout the night, meaning that he needed to rest during normal business hours. Joe would often come to our meetings restless, no doubt because of the fatigue, but also because he was anxious about his fast approaching case. The lack of sleep and the loss of his wife were too much for Joe to handle on some days. Joe’s strong faith in God and his love for his children were the anchors that he clung to during his darkest moments. And yet throughout the tumult of his days, Joe would periodically call us simply to say thank you, and to say that he would pray for us. Little did he know these small glimmers of hope he held in his heart would carry us to the end.

Our professors arranged a time in which we would be able to practice in a moot with a guest Judge and DHS attorney. Our classmates played the roles of our client and witness. The moot was the best practice we received that was as close to a real hearing as possible. We had to learn to think on our feet, to object to DHS counsel’s questioning when necessary, and, in general, pay close attention to every minute detail from our client’s demeanor, to the Judge’s reactions and commentary. While we had many practice moots with our professors, we felt especially prepared and confident after our formal moot. After all of our preparation, we knew we had a firm grasp on all the possible scenarios that could arise on our hearing date. This preparation in itself gave us confidence and helped to steady our nerves.

The Judge Grants Joe LPR Cancellation of Removal Relief from Removal

Our victory finally came on April 24, 2014 when the Immigration Judge in Arlington Immigration Court granted Joe LPR Cancellation of Removal. All those hours of preparation had come down to that one moment, and it was worth every last bit of effort we had exerted in those final days. We felt prepared to address both DHS counsel and the Judge, and had practiced enough with Joe so that we knew he would be comfortable on the stand. It felt invigorating to have a dialogue with the Judge, and to properly address DHS’s concerns within the direct examination of our client. In the end, the Judge thanked us for our efforts in taking the case pro-bono, thanked our professors for their guidance, and concluded that Joe was deserving of relief.

Brittni Ana and client

We had worked with Joe tirelessly throughout what seemed to be an emotional roller coaster. When we felt the pressure mounting, our professors’ steadfast presence around us held us upright. With the tremendous support of our classmates, we knew we would not waver. Throughout it all, the thought of Joe’s younger U.S. citizen children, ages 9, 11, and 12, who we have never met, but whose photos we carried with us, fueled our resolve to keep their father here so that they would not suffer another tragic loss. While there is more we are invested in doing to help Joe, like finding a good counseling center so that he may receive the emotional help he needs, we took a few moments to relish in our success. Outside the courtroom, smiles of relief came across all our faces. We took pictures outside of the court as mementos of our triumph, and we were thankful and extremely pleased with the outcome.

We can think of no person more deserving of a second chance than Joe. While we facilitated Joe’s journey in seeking relief from removal, we became students of his example of courage, faith, and tenacity. Joe’s devout belief in a better tomorrow, despite tremendous obstacles, will forever remain with us as a source of eternal strength.

 

* An alias has been used.

GUEST BLOG: Catholic University Law Students Win Asylum Case…23 Years in the Making

24 Apr

Ana and MartinAna and Martin

By Ana Victoria Perez and Elmer Martin Uribe, Student Attorneys with the CUA Immigration Litigation Clinic

“Asylum has been granted. Congratulations.” Those are the magic words that Judge David Crosland uttered on the morning of April 21, 2014. As he said those words, a flood of emotions overcame all of us. Happiness, relief, and excitement were felt throughout the small courtroom where Bill had just been granted asylum, twenty-three years after arriving in the United States. His mother and cousin, who were present at the time, could not contain their tears of joy as we hugged and celebrated the positive outcome of his case.

We met Bill on September 2013.  Only a week earlier, we had a chance to review his case file and study his immigration history for the first time. Bill greeted us with a smile; we shook hands and sat down with him to hear his story. His smile faded quickly as we delved into the general outline of his story. At first, Bill was reluctant to go into too much detail, and he made general statements about certain aspects of his life. It was at this point that we realized that our client was trying to block out some of the more painful moments of his life and he was hesitant to tell us about his current personal struggles. Fast-forward to April 2014; after several long nights, many discussions with our client and his family, and endless research, we knew our client’s life experiences as if they were our own. His story is filled with traumatic experiences, terrifying events, and personal struggles that few people ever encounter in their lifetimes, yet Bill overcame his own insecurities and fears and gained the courage to apply for asylum. Thanks to his determination, his family’s encouragement, and the amazing support team behind his two student attorneys, Bill is now able to celebrate his safety and freedom in the United States.

Bill’s Story

Bill came to the United States in 1991 fleeing the brutality of the First Liberian Civil War. Because of his father’s associations with Sierra Leone and his mother’s Americo-Liberian background, the family was perceived as supporters of either side and made them a target for any of the warring factions involved in the conflict. However, the most painful event that Bill endured was the day soldiers trespassed into his cousin’s house where they were hiding. The soldiers ordered the women to one side and lined up the men against the wall. As Bill stood against the wall, he pleaded for his life and heard his mother do the same. The soldiers did not listen to reason and beat the men with their weapons, but just as the soldiers were getting ready to execute them, the ECOMOG peacekeeping forces arrived. The soldiers relented from their attempt to execute the family and the ECOMOG forces transported the family away.

After that incident, Bill’s family decided to escape Liberia. Bill and his younger brother were sent to the United States to live with their older brother and sister. After arriving in the U.S., Bill suffered from intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, exaggerated startled responses, anxiety, and various other symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As if suffering through a brutal civil war was not enough, Bill also had to deal with his own personal struggles. During his teenage years, Bill began to realize that he was not like the other boys his age. While the other boys talked about girls and had girlfriends, this was a topic that did not interest him. He pushed his emotions and confusion aside and decided to focus on academics and athletics at school. As he grew up, he began to think that he was gay, but this thought scared him because he knew what happened to anyone who was perceived as gay in Liberia. He was haunted by his uncle’s story of being brutally beaten, arrested, and detained for almost a week in Liberia because his persecutors perceived him as gay. Bill knew that Liberian society was not open to homosexuality and he did not want to put himself in that position, so he denied his own identity, refused to accept his true self, and suppressed his feelings towards men.

WP Photo on African Gays

Then, in 2012, Liberia introduced two bills in their legislature that would make homosexuality a crime. These laws were used as a rallying point by several politicians and it spurred intensified homophobic sentiments in the streets. Several organizations reported that Liberian sexual minorities were being discriminated against, stigmatized, harassed, and subjected to violence by neighbors, friends, strangers on the streets, and even family members. Whenever one of these victims attempted to seek protection from the police, the Liberian National Police would either ignore their requests or charge them with engaging in “deviant behavior” and arrest them. The Human Rights Watch report on Liberia and the LGBT community highlights these incidents with the police. One particularly compelling story came from the report. Hassan, a 23-year-old gay man, said “he considered the police to be complicit perpetrators, in demeaning and insulting victims and their friends. He recalled an incident in which he was detained together with his friend Leroy after reporting being attacked by a gang of neighborhood boys. He said the police disregarded his report and concentrated on the counter allegation about their sexual orientation. [He said] ‘I have lost all faith in the police. They act like gays deserve the abuse and humiliation.’” With the backdrop of this intensified homophobic atmosphere in Liberia, Bill began to fear for his safety if he had to return to Liberia. It was not until 2013 that Bill finally accepted his true self and worked up the courage to tell the person he loved most about his sexual orientation. Bill was nervous when he told his mother, but once he saw that she loved him and accepted him regardless of who he was, he felt a like huge weight had lifted off his shoulders.

HRW report liberia

Road to Asylum

Shortly thereafter, Bill began the process of applying for asylum. When we first met him, he had a happy-go-lucky attitude that did not fully reflect all the experiences he had endured up to this point. He always brushed aside questions about his time in Liberia during the civil war and his own sexuality. It was a long process, but week after week, we met with him and slowly gained his trust, discussing all the details of his case.

We spent almost eight months preparing for that one day, April 21st, the day that would decide our client’s fate. We collected every piece of evidence necessary to meet our burden of proof that Bill had a subjectively genuine and objectively reasonable fear of going back to Liberia. We also reached out to several experts on Liberia and LGBT issues, as well as respected psychiatrists who were willing to donate their time and expertise to strengthen our case and assist Bill in overcoming an over 20-year filing delay.

Balt Imm Ct

On the day of the hearing, we were ready for every possible scenario that the DHS attorney and the immigration judge could throw at us. We reviewed our closing arguments with our supervisors while Bill silently sat with his mother and cousin, who had come to testify on his behalf. He was clearly nervous the whole ride to Baltimore; he barely spoke. He kept repeating that he wanted it all to be over soon. We had been preparing for this day for many weeks, and when we heard the DHS attorney say she would stipulate to asylum, we almost could not believe our ears. All of our efforts to prepare the best case possible had paid off. For us and for Bill, it was vindication of so many late nights, excess of caffeine, and several months of arduous work solely focusing on our client. It was the best result we could have ever hoped for, and we learned a very valuable lesson that we will carry with us into our careers: win the case before setting foot in the courtroom.

We have so many anecdotes of our time working with Bill and his family while building our case for his asylum claim. While we would like to share them all, we will leave you with one of the most recent ones. As we drove back from the Baltimore Immigration Court, after Bill was granted asylum, a song played on the radio called: “On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons.

Shortly thereafter, Bill started singing the lyrics to the song, and a flow of emotions consumed us all. There is, literally, no better description to how we all felt at that moment – on top of the world! Few things in life can give you greater satisfaction than how we felt that day. To make such a remarkable difference in Bill’s life is more than we could have asked for, and while we helped make his life better, Bill made a difference in our lives too. He taught us that, despite the many challenges that life can place in front of us, hope, courage, and perseverance must never die.

GUEST BLOG: Gender-Based Asylum Victory in Virginia by the George Washington University Law School Immigration Clinic

15 Apr

This post was written by Sydney Barron, a law student at George Washington University Law School and a member of the school’s Immigration Clinic, under the direction of Professor Alberto Benitez.  Benach Ragland periodically offers this space to law students and non-profit organizations to discuss their immigration cases.  If you are a law school professor or a non-profit organization that wishes to tell the story of one of your immigration cases, please write us at acbenach@benachragland.com.

 

On March 11, 2014, my client, Julia[1] won the asylum that she requested over a decade ago. Julia fled horrific domestic violence in her home country, Guatemala, and came to the United States in 2002. Unfortunately, Julia was not able to bring her children with her when she fled. After she entered the United States, the George Washington Immigration Clinic helped her file her asylum claim. Julia had to live with uncertainty for over a decade as her case wound its way through the immigration system. By the time Julia was finally granted asylum twelve years after fleeing her abuser, she had appeared before three different immigration judges, and worked with twenty different student-attorneys from the GW Immigration Clinic.

Sydney Barron Photo

GWU Law Student Sydney Barron

Julia filed for asylum in 2003. There was insufficient time for all of her testimony and cross-examination at her first individual merits hearing in 2004, so she had an additional individual merits hearing scheduled. The next hearing was not held until 2006 because the immigration court was so busy at the time.

When Julia first filed for asylum, the law of asylum for victims of domestic violence was far from favorable. At that time, the immigration courts were waiting for regulatory guidance on the issue of granting asylum to victims of domestic violence, but were hesitant to grant asylum while such guidance remained pending. For this reason, the immigration judge administratively closed Julia‘s case in 2006. This situation provided only temporary protection, and her case could be reopened at any time. Additionally, even though Julia could remain in the United States while her case was administratively closed, she could not bring her children here unless she was granted asylum.

A year later in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) requested that the case be reopened. In June 2009, the immigration judge issued a written decision finding that Julia was credible and had suffered harm rising to the level of past persecution, but there was no “nexus” between the harm she suffered and her membership in a particular social group. The immigration judge therefore denied Julia‘s asylum claim.

The GW Immigration Clinic assisted Julia in appealing her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”). Before Julia‘s appeal was decided by the BIA, the law on asylum for victims of domestic violence shifted and became more favorable. The most well-known case on the eligibility of victims of domestic violence for asylum is Matter of R-A-. In Matter of R-A-, a Guatemalan woman suffered terrible abuse from her husband.[2] Fourteen years after R-A- applied for asylum, in December 2009, an immigration judge granted R-A-’s request for asylum.[3] Another central case regarding asylum for victims of domestic violence, Matter of L-R, ended in 2010 with a grant of asylum.[4] In both Matter of R-A- and Matter of L-R-, DHS submitted briefs describing the circumstances that they considered sufficient for a domestic violence victim to be eligible for asylum.[5] Given these two historic asylum grants, a prior student-attorney at the GW Immigration Clinic submitted a Motion to Remand Julia‘s case with the BIA.

When I first met Julia, she had not yet heard back from the BIA about the Motion to Remand. During my first semester in the GW Immigration Clinic, the BIA remanded Julia’s case to the Arlington Immigration Court. My first appearance in immigration court was for Julia‘s master calendar hearing. The GW Immigration Clinic Director, Professor Alberto Benitez, and my other supervisor, Mr. Jonathan Bialosky, prepared me to ask for a grant of asylum at this hearing. They explained that this was an unlikely outcome, and was extremely unlikely without DHS’s support. However, if I were able to convince DHS to agree to a grant, the immigration judge might grant Julia asylum given the prior immigration judge’s findings on credibility and the violence Julia suffered.

On the day of the master calendar hearing, the DHS trial attorney had not yet received Julia‘s file from the BIA, and could not support a grant. Luckily, the immigration judge recognized that Julia had already been waiting for over a decade, and scheduled the merits hearing for March 11, 2014. This was a huge relief to Julia, and myself, since some cases are scheduled up to two years from the master calendar hearing date.

In preparation for the individual hearing, I met with Julia multiple times a week. Her family members had alerted her to continued threats made by her abuser, including threats to beat, rape, and kill her. I submitted affidavits from Julia and her family about these threats.   I also submitted evidence from a psychiatrist, which supported Julia‘s testimony, and multiple articles about Guatemala and its institutionalized acceptance of domestic violence.

Before the individual merits hearing with the immigration judge, the GW Immigration Clinic held a moot hearing with Julia. Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky explained that I should not have a set of questions written down, because they had seen student-attorneys become dependent on a list of questions, ignoring what their client was actually saying. I wrote out the main issues that I wanted to get Julia to testify about, and practiced asking non-leading questions with other student-attorneys.  On the day of the moot hearing, I realized the difficulty of an actual direct examination, especially the difficulty of asking non-leading questions to get Julia to provide necessary details. Additionally, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky asked the student-attorney playing the role of the trial attorney to try to surprise and rattle me by objecting to my evidence and submitting new evidence during the moot. The moot hearing taught me the importance of carefully listening to the client’s testimony and asking sufficient follow-up questions to ensure the client mentions all relevant details. It also taught me the importance of projecting confidence in my questions and responses, especially when unexpected issues arise.

The day before the hearing, I called the trial attorney who was assigned to Julia‘s case. I left her a message asking if she had received my pre-trial filing, and offering to answer any questions she might have. That afternoon the trial attorney returned my call while I was in class, and while I was able to excuse myself to an empty room, I did not have any of my notes with me. My lack of notes initially worried me; however, once the trial attorney started asking me questions about the case, I realized that the months of preparation had hammered all of the facts into my head, and I could easily discuss the case without any notes.   We discussed the procedural history of the case and the evidence that Julia’s abuser continued to threaten her. After answering all of the trial attorney’s questions, I felt confident that the trial attorney appreciated the grave danger that Julia would face if she were forced to return to Guatemala.

On the day of Julia’s individual merits hearing, Professor Benitez, Mr. Bialosky, and many of the other student-attorneys who came to support Julia were present in the courtroom. Immediately before the hearing, the trial attorney informed me that she would not be opposing a grant of asylum. Julia was extremely excited, but I explained that nothing was certain until the immigration judge granted her asylum. The immigration judge requested that I do a short direct examination of Julia, and after my direct examination the trial attorney did a short cross-examination. After Julia returned to her seat, the immigration judge gave his oral decision granting Julia asylum. To the surprise of everyone in the courtroom, Julia asked the judge if she could hug him. The judge explained that he could not hug her in person, but that he would “hug” her from where he was. Both Julia and the immigration judge hugged the air in front of them in a very touching moment. Julia also hugged the trial attorney after the hearing was over. Professor Benitez told me later that it was the first time that he had ever seen a client ask to hug the immigration judge or the trial attorney.

I am grateful to the GW Immigration Clinic for the opportunity to assist Julia in her search for safety. I am grateful to my supervisors, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky, who guided me through the process, set up moot hearings, and provided feedback on my pre-trial filing and hearing preparation. I am grateful to all of the other student-attorneys for their help throughout the year, providing feedback and helping to prepare Julia for cross-examination. Finally, I am grateful to Julia, an inspiring woman who persevered with immense strength. The opportunity to help protect her from further abuse and finally bring her a sense of peace and closure was an amazing gift.

 

[1] My client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

[2] Matter of R-A-, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (BIA 1999), vacated, 22 I&N Dec. 906 (A.G. 2001), remanded, 23 I&N Dec. 694 (A.G. 2005), remanded, 24 I&N Dec. 629 (A.G. 2008).

[3] Lisa Mendel-Hirsa, Recent Landmark Victories in the On-Going Struggle for U.S. Immigration Law to Recognize and Fully Protect Women’s Human Rights, Empire Justice Center (Nov. 19, 2010), http://www.empirejustice.org/issue-areas/domestic-violence/battered-immigrants/articles/domestic-violence-and.html#.U0Ac3fldVHI.

[4] Id.

[5] Department of Homeland Security’s Position on Respondent’s Eligibility for Relief,

Matter of R-A-, 22 I. & N. Dec. 906 (Feb. 19, 2004) (File No. A 73 753 922); Department of Homeland Security’s Supplemental Brief, Matter of [L-R-, redacted] (Apr. 13, 2009).

GUEST BLOG: Catholic University Law Students Win Protection for South African Client!

20 Mar

Judy and Tarun

By Judith Muñoz and Tarunpal Dhillon, Student Attorneys with the Catholic University Law School Immigration Litigation Clinic

 

We met our client, Tanya,[i] for the first time on December 18, 2013 at the Baltimore Immigration Court. She stood behind a glass door, in a navy blue jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled. As she told us her story of survival in South Africa, a few points became very clear about our client: she is a source of inspiration, a fighter, and a seeker of justice. Her story is similar to that of David and Goliath.  She is an individual who, against all odds, dared to question and challenge a powerful, dominating, and resourceful enemy. The enemy in our client’s story is not a single individual but an all-powerful entity, consisting of hundreds of corCorrupt SA police 1rupt men going against the very principle of righteousness they vowed to abide by and the very principle of justice they vowed to uphold – the South African Police. The South African Police conspired with a notorious criminal gang to target and harm our client, Tanya, due to a deeply rooted animosity surrounding the controversial death of Tanya’s brother, a former police reservist.  Tanya had sought answers from the corrupt South African Police regarding her brother’s death, answers the police did not want to give.  For that, she became their target.

Fleeing imminent death threats, Tanya came the United States with a J1 visa in 2005. Once in the United States, Tanya obtained a U visa as a victim of domestic violence. In 2011, however, Tanya’s U visa was revoked after she was found guilty of a criminal offense during which she was acting in self-defense against her abuser. She was placed in removal proceedings before the Baltimore Immigration Court, and ultimately, she was ordered removed to South Africa, the very country she had fled years before. Although she had an appeal pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Department of Homeland Security deported Tanya to South Africa.  In an effort to hide and protect herself from the police and the gang, Tanya relocated and took extreme measures to change her identity. Despite her efforts, however, the police used its mighty resources to track her down. Again, they used the notorious criminal gang to do their dirty work for them. The gang found Tanya and attacked her on two different occasions, threatening her life and destroying any sense of security she had gained by her relocation and change of identity. Tanya moved around, staying in the homes of friends and acquaintances, trying to stay out of reach of the police and the gang, until December of 2013, when she received news that the Board of Immigration Appeals had granted her appeal. The Board remanded her case back to the Baltimore Immigration Court and requested that she return to the United States to litigate her application for protection under the Convention Against Torture.

After hearing our client’s story, we quickly realized the enormous responsibility that we agreed to put on our shoulders. We were to become protectors, fighters-for-justice, and zealous advocates for a woman who feared she would be brutally and viciously attacked and killed by a notorious criminal gang working under the orders of the South African Police. Our most important and challenging task was to establish the relationship and collusion between these two criminal, corrupt entities and relay it persuasively in front of the immigration judge during Tanya’s individual merits hearing.

Corrupt SA police 2

We spent the next three months dedicating our lives to fighting for our client’s life. As law students, the real world of immigration practice had arrived very quickly and was knocking on our door. We made the choice to open that door and step through it to try to save our client. The process was overwhelming and stressful because the stakes were so very high, but at the same time, this case was an opportunity to transition from inexperienced first-time litigators to zealous advocates fighting for justice for our deserving client. We seized the opportunity and have felt a true transformation from students to advocates, a trait that has now become a part of our identities.

The individual merits hearing represented the most difficult and costly law school exam that we agreed to partake in. We agreed, amongst ourselves, to view the outcome as an indicator of our skill level.  We were students, up against an experienced attorney for the Department of Homeland Security.  We had a decision to make: we could either act like students and fall back to our insecurities and uncertainties, or we could step into the real world of advocacy and put everything on the table for our client. We viewed the hearing as our opportunity to fight for Tanya, for justice, and for humanity – everything Tanya was unable to procure in her native South Africa. After months of preparation, there was nowhere else in the world we would have wanted to be other than at our client’s side, defending her and seeking justice.

The hearing consisted of three-and-a-half hours of direct and cross examinations, client and witness testimony, evidentiary challenges, responses to objections by opposing counsel, and answers to tough questions from the immigration judge.  It ended with an oral decision given by the immigration judge. When the immigration judge stated that he was ready to make his decision, we took a big breath and silently prayed. The wait was unbearable and our hearts were beating at an exceptionally high rate, but we knew we had done everything in our ability to fight for our client. When the immigration judge announced his decision to grant our client deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture, we experienced a type of joy and accomplishment never before experienced by either of us in our lifetime. It hit us: we had saved our client’s life.

Our client’s reaction made the three months of insanity, stress, frustration with complicated legal theories, and uncertainty as students in the challenging world of immigration law all worthwhile.  Tears poured down her face while she repeatedly whispered the words “thank you”. Tanya was released from immigration detention that afternoon, and we were able to walk out of the immigration court building with our client, who was literally jumping and skipping for joy, a free woman who can now live safely in the United States. Walking out of the court with Tanya was an amazing feeling. Fighting for justice to save a woman from torture at the hands of the corrupt South African Police is an accomplishment we will never forget. It was one of the best days of our lives.

The success of our case is attributable to a number of exceptional individuals that worked tirelessly and vigorously with us over the three-month timeframe. We had the support of two amazing supervising attorneys, our professors, Michelle Mendez and Dree Collopy, who taught us immigration law and the skills we needed to practice before the U.S. immigration courts, and prepared us for the countless scenarios that could be thrown at us during the individual hearing. They were our mentors and educators, and were always present as a source of optimism and encouragement. We were also fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with an exceptionally wonderful human being, who donated many hours of her time to work with us as our expert on police collusion in South Africa, Dr. Fran Buntman of George Washington University.  Lastly, we had the tremendous support of our fellow classmates and participants in the Immigration Litigation Clinic at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

As a direct result of our particDavid-Vs-Goliathipation in Catholic University’s Immigration Litigation Clinic, we were blessed with the opportunity to meet an amazing client who came to us with a David and Goliath scenario, but left us with the confidence to face seemingly impossible odds and the passion to fight for what’s right. For us, the clinic was not just a class…it was a transformation.


[i] Our client’s name has been changed to protect her identity.