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BR Has Another New Lawyer!

5 Feb

We are thrilled to welcome and announce the newest addition to our BR family, Elanie Cintron. Elanie has joined us in DC as an associate attorney from North Carolina by way of Brooklyn, New York (where she received countless awards and honors as a law student at Hofstra University, including the prestigious Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Fellowship) and Denver, Colorado (where she immediately set herself apart as a rising star in the immigration field as an associate attorney with powerhouse firm Lichter Immigration).

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(Elanie with her asylum clients from Honduras)

As the child of two U.S. military service members, Elanie learned from her parents a sense of duty and service to our country. Rather than defending our country through military service, however, Elanie has dedicated herself and her career to defending the American ideals of justice and equality as a true advocate for vulnerable populations. Most recently, Elanie completed about six “tours of duty” volunteering at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico as part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s pro bono project.

IMG_1535  image1  In Artesia, Elanie represented detained women and children refugees seeking protection from the domestic and gang violence they had fled in Central America. It is in that setting in which BR Partner Dree Collopy met Elanie and was immediately impressed by her skills as an attorney and passion as an advocate for justice. Through her work in Artesia, Elanie won asylum for a woman and her young son from Honduras, who had fled years of horrific domestic violence. Applying her client’s compelling story to the legal minefield of gender-based and particular social group asylum claims, Elanie convinced an immigration judge that her client and her client’s young son merited protection in this country. Upon being granted asylum, Elanie’s clients were released from the horrific conditions in Artesia, the Obama Administration’s detention center that has now been shut down in shame. Living freely and safely in the United States, Elanie’s clients still send her nearly-daily messages of gratitude for her selfless devotion to their cause.

It is this kind of attorney that we at BR seek out to join us in our shared mission. Elanie, welcome to our family! Fig too, of course.

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(Elanie’s dog, Fig)

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.

BR Has a New Lawyer!

17 Dec

Adi

We have waited just over three months for this day, where we can introduce Adi Nuñez as an attorney at Benach Ragland!  Although Adi has been with us since September, Adi was sworn in as a member of the bar of the State of Maryland today and now has all the rights, privileges and obligations of being a licensed attorney.  We welcome Adi into this profession that we love and know that Adi will use her powers to benefit our clients, their families and communities for years to come.IMG_1537

This is not to say that she has not already used those powers.  Behind the scenes, Adi has poured her heart and soul into some of our most significant cases, such as Dree Collopy’s recent victory in a gang-based asylum claim for a woman and her son detained at the federal gulag in Artesia, NM.  She also was there for the great jamon and wine event last week to celebrate the holidays at BR.

A Californian of Mexican heritage, Adi joins an office that represents much of Latin America- Cuba (Andres), Colombia (Sandra), Honduras (Liana), and Peru (Mariela).  If Cubans played soccer (excuse me, futbol), we could have a World Cup.  Adi moved east to attend Catholic University for law school.  While there, she was a Student Attorney aHoliday luncht the Immigration Clinic taught by Dree Collopy.  She made quite an impression on her professor who scooped her right up after her graduation.

While Adi’s academic career included a couple of unfortunate detours working for the government on immigration enforcement issues, we do not believe that it was anything that a few months of winning cases for people won’t fix.  Also, some of her mother’s Mexican food would help too.

Adi has the care, passion and intellect to represent immigrants and their families well.  We expect many more great things from her as she grows into her career and congratulate her on this important milestone.

 

GUEST BLOG: GWU Law Clinic Victory in Domestic Violence Case! By Paulina Vera

10 Nov

Vera Blog PhotoThis blog post was written by Paulina Vera, a student at George Washington University Law School, who is part of the Law School’s outstanding immigration clinic.

On October 10, 2014, my client, S-G-L-, was granted asylum by Immigration Judge Paul W. Schmidt of the Arlington Immigration Court. S-G-L- fled Honduras in 2009 after her domestic partner attacked her with weapons and repeatedly beat and raped her. S-G-L- feared that her abuser would find her if she were to move elsewhere in Honduras and for that reason she made the decision to flee to the United States. Unfortunately, S-G-L- had to leave behind her 10-year-old daughter.

S-G-L-‘s hearing only lasted about ten minutes. But those ten minutes took years of preparation and I personally worked on the case for a little over three months. The GW Law Immigration Clinic first began to represent S-G-L- in the fall of 2011. However, because her hearing was rescheduled twice, S-G-L- had to wait years before appearing before the court.

Several of S-G-L-‘s former student attorneys attended her hearing. In fact, S-G-L- joked that she had never been surrounded by so many attorneys before. Their presence helped ease my nerves and I was reminded of just how lucky I was to have their support throughout the entire process. S-G-L-‘s former student-attorneys include Diane Eikenberry, Rachael Petterson, Denisse Velarde-Cubek, Gabriela Muñoz, Kelly Rojas, and Aimee Rider. They helped in many different ways, including putting together S-G-L-‘s affidavit, obtaining her work authorization, and gathering medical reports.

By the time I was assigned to S-G-L’s case, the main tasks left were to put together the pre-trial filing (PTF) and to represent S-G-L- at her individual hearing. My first challenge arose when I reviewed S-G-L-‘s approximately 30-page affidavit with her. Though I am fluent in Spanish, I found it difficult to find the right words to discuss the traumatic experiences S-G-L- had endured. As previously mentioned, S-G-L- had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her domestic partner. This was not a topic that I was used to talking about in Spanish. Thankfully, S-G-L- was incredibly patient with me. We were able to communicate by explaining concepts or words in several different ways and sometimes, even by using gestures.

I encountered another challenge in putting together the behemoth of a pre-trial filing. By the time I was done putting it together, it was a little under 300 pages, which is actually on the shorter side as far as Clinic PTFs go. There were so many details that I had to pay attention to at once – Did my cover letter succinctly and accurately explain why the elements of asylum were met? What information should I highlight in the table of contents? Was there enough information in the affidavit? Was there too much? In addition to all of these questions, I had to figure out all of those practical things you don’t learn in a law school classroom; for example, how to correctly number, copy, and file copies of the PTF to the Court and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

However, the preparation for my direct examination was the biggest challenge I faced. I was understandably nervous going into the moot of my hearing but I struggled to push past those nerves even as the moot went on. I kept trying to ask what I thought would be the “perfect” question and I would pause all too often to think about what answer I was trying to elicit from my client. No matter what point of my client’s testimony we started at, I just could not seem to get the hang of it. By the end of the moot, I was frustrated and disappointed in myself.

The feedback I received from my supervisors and fellow student-attorneys after my moot helped tremendously. They reminded me that I had all the reason to be confident in myself – I had spent months preparing S-G-L-‘s case and knew the PTF backwards and forwards. My supervisors, Professor Alberto Benitez and Jonathan Bialosky, advised me that there was no such thing as the “perfect” question. They also reminded me that in immigration court, a direct examination was more conversational, so I should not force it so much. Previous student-attorney, Rachael Petterson – who was kind enough to play the role of Immigration Judge at my moot – told me that there was nothing wrong with the way I felt and she shared that she too felt the same frustrations at her first moot.

Ultimately, I did not hEOIRave to conduct my direct examination at S-G-L-‘s hearing. Yet I was ready for it. When I entered the courtroom on October 10th, I was still nervous, but no longer in a way that was debilitating. Keeping in mind all of the advice that had been given to me, I felt more confident at the actual hearing. These are lessons that I will certainly use in practice after I graduate.

Another lesson I learned in preparing for S-G-L-‘s hearing was the importance of working with the DHS trial attorney. A week before my hearing, I reached out to Ms. Jill Parikh to see if we could discuss any issues in the case. After she returned my call and outlined the various issues

she had flagged, my supervisors and I felt confident that those specific issues had been addressed by the PTF. Therefore, before the hearing I approached Ms. Parikh and asked her if she would be willing to move straight to her cross-examination, which she agreed to. After her brief cross-examination, Ms. Parikh did not oppose a grant of asylum.

At the hearing, I learned that winning asylum is also very much dependent on the adjudicator. Judge Schmidt carefully reviewed the pre-trial filing before the hearing and was familiar with the horrific facts of the case. After he granted S-G-L- asylum, he took the time to address S-G-L- and advised her to “do good things for [herself], her daughter, and the country that granted [her] refuge.” His words moved S-G-L- to tears and she repeatedly thanked him. He also reminded S-G-L- to thank her student-attorneys and Ms. Parikh. I am grateful for Judge Schmidt’s kind words regarding my pre-trial filing.

I am grateful to the GW Immigration Clinic for the opportunity to help S-G-L- seek safety in the United States. There are many people in my support system that I want to thank. I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor Benitez and Mr. Bialosky, who answered my many, many questions, set up moot hearings, and gave me invaluable feedback on my pre-trial filing and my hearing preparation. I would like to thank all of S-G-L-‘s prior student-attorneys for putting countless hours of work into this case and for being a comforting presence in the courtroom on the day of S-G-L-‘s hearing. Many thanks to my fellow student-attorneys as well for their encouragement and their willingness to help out at S-G-L-‘s moot hearing. I would like to thank Professor Maggs for observing the hearing and for his continued support of the work the Clinic does. Finally, I would like to give a big thank you to S-G-L- for being the best first client I could have asked for. S-G-L- suffered unimaginable persecution in her home country and I am inspired by her strength and her perseverance.

Victory! BIA finds Domestic Violence Victims May Qualify for Asylum

27 Aug

U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border

In a major victory for immigrants, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled yesterday that women who are unable to leave domestic violence caused by their husbands may qualify as a particular social group for asylum purposes.  This decision brings to an end a lengthy period of uncertainty regarding the viability of claims to asylum by women fleeing domestic violence.  The Board’s decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I.&N. Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), establishing clear and controlling law to the nation’s immigration judge that victims of domestic violence can qualify for asylum.  While the law has been moving in this direction for quite some time, there was still a lack of Board precedent obligating immigration judges nationwide to follow it.  While progressive judges cobbled together legal authority from circuit court cases and unpublished decisions, recalcitrant judges used the lack of directing precedent to deny domestic violence claims.  The Board’s decisions removes any uncertainty that victims of domestic violence can obtain asylum in the U.S. due to the domestic violence they suffered in their home country.  The decision could not be more timely as the influx of women and children on the Southern border being detained in Artesia, New Mexico has shone a spotlight on the ability of victims of domestic violence to seek protection under U.S. asylum law.  The decision gives these applicants a potent new weapon and undermines the administration’s ability to remove them with barely a semblance of due process.

The decision is the result of nearly two decades of litigation on the topic of victims’ of domestic violence eligibility for asylum.  This issue has been pushed for all that time by Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California at Hastings, who conceived the legal basis for the asylum claim and saw through a terrible BIA precedent called Matter of R-A-, which, in the BIA’s first analysis, denied asylum eligibility to victims of domestic violence.  R-A- eventually got settled with Rodi Alvarado being granted asylum but without a precedent decision.  That precedent decision came down yesterday.

In yesterday’s decision, the BIA squarely held that ” ‘married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship’ can constitute a cognizable particular social group that forms the basis of a claim for asylum or withholding of removal.”  The Board considered a case where a married woman suffered atrocious abuse at the hands of her husband, who tried to leave the relationship, and who was rebuffed by the police when she sought help.  The BIA considered the development of case law on particular social groups, the facts of the case, and the social context in which domestic violence occurs and determined that the social group of “married Guatemalan women who are unable to leave their relationship” can support a claim to asylum.

Of course, the individual facts and social context of the case are extremely important.  However, the decision gives strong support to the thousands of women fleeing domestic violence by coming to the U.S. and provides hope that there is an alternative to the violence and degradation they experienced in their home countries.

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.

 

BR “Stars” at American Immigration Lawyers Association Conference

26 Jun

Panoramic_Boston

The Benach Ragland crew just returned from the annual conference of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Boston, Massachusetts.  The annual meeting is the largest gathering of immigration lawyers and provides an opportunity for lawyers to learn from each other and improve their services to their clients.  This year, Benach Ragland attorneys Dree Collopy and Andres Benach, served on the conference faculty.  On Friday, Dree spoke on a panel that encouraged lawyers to think about issues in removal proceedings that go beyond the availability of relief entitled “Challenges and Strategies Beyond Relief.”  On Saturday morning, Andres served as a “Star” on the “Litigating with the Stars” panel, which challenged lawyers in the audience to think through common (and uncommon) scenarios and share their strategy.  The “stars” then critiqued the answers.  It was, indeed, a pretty sharp group of lawyers, as the stars gave out lots of “9s” and “10s.”

AILA also asked Andres to serve a third year as a member of the amicus curiae committee, the committee that decides which cases AILA will support with amicus briefs and prepares briefs on behalf of the organization.  In 2013-14, the committee submitted sixty briefs.  Dree was chosen again to serve as the Chair of the AILA asylum committee.  Thomas Ragland will continue to serve on the Federal Court Section Steering Committee.

The highlight of the conference was Saturday evening, when AILA gave its 2014 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyer Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Immigration and Nationality Law.  In presenting her with this award, AILA cited Dree’s full caseload at Benach Ragland, as well as her leadership of the Catholic University Law School Immigration Clinic and her stewardship of the AILA National Asylum Committee.  Lastly, AILA noted that DrDree2ee is writing the upcoming edition of AILA’s Asylum Primer, a practical how-to for anyone seeking to represent an asylum seeker.  AILA subsequently published Dree’s speech accepting her award on its Leadership Blog.  Dree cited the humanitarian crisis on the border, the lack of due process, and the failure of the political branches to address the serious policy issue of immigration:

We are now faced with a humanitarian crisis at our borders.  CBP and ICE officers are using excessive force, inhumane detention conditions, and “no process” removals. We are faced with immigration courts fighting against insufficient resources, overcrowded dockets and cabined legal discretion. And we are faced with a renewed assault on our asylum system by Congress and the agencies themselves.

Yet, no actions are taken by those in power to fix our system. Instead we have a Congress that points fingers and strikes a pose in Capitol Hill hearings and an Administration which, on the back of an immigration reform-focused campaign, has taken to putting Band-Aids on gashes rather than treating the underlying wounds.

Until we have leaders who are going to work together to solve real problems that affect real people, American businesses, and separated families, it is up to us. It is for these reasons that this award is only the beginning of my journey.

After the awards ceremony, BR and many FOBRs headed out for a night of dancing, before getting back to the work that we knew awaited us.

 

Cancellation Victory (well, sort of)

22 Apr

A couple of months ago, I got to enjoy my fifteen minutes of fame when my client became the poster child for problems caused for immigrants in immigration court by the government shutdown.  I wrote a blog piece, wrote another for the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association and, next thing I know, I am speaking to Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered and people I have not heard from in decades called me to say they heard me on the radio.  But, eventually, my fame wore off and I still had to fix this young woman’s situation.

what-up-with-that

As way of background, my client, a 21 year old college junior who has been here since she was four years old, applied for cancellation of removal from the Immigration Judge.  Cancellation is available to an individual who has been unlawfully present in the U.S. for at least ten years, possesses good moral character and whose removal would cause exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent or child.  Congress has decided that only 4000 cancellation cases should be granted every year.  For many years, the 4000 quota was enough for the entire country.  However, as the Obama administration put many more people into removal proceedings, more people applied.  And guess what?  Given a day in court, more people were able to convince judges that they were good people with longstanding ties to the U.S. and deporting them would cause their families tremendous hardship.  By December 2012, the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge announced that they had run out of cancellation visas for the entire fiscal year, which had started barely two months earlier.  My client had a hearing in December 2012, in which she was informed by the Judge that there were no more cancellation grants available and the case would need to be continued.  The case was reset until October 2013.  The irony at that time was that she had originally been scheduled in October 2012, when cancellation numbers were available, but had to be rescheduled when the court was shut down due to flooding in lower Manhattan as a result of Hurricane Sandy.10155981_741506099222830_2694746367904436600_n

Fast forward to October 2013 and the government shutdown cancels her latest hearing.  The New York, upon reopening, quickly sent out a hearing notice for March 30.  However, on March 28, the court called me to inform me that the case would need to be rescheduled because the judge had been selected for jury duty!  We were rescheduled for April 18 at 2:00 PM, a date that greatly concerned me as it was Good Friday.  Sure enough, the court called the day before and asked us to come in earlier, which we happily did.  At the hearing, the government informed the court that it agreed with our request to grant our client cancellation of removal.  It took all of fifteen minutes.  The Judge was glad to do so, but explained that there are no cancellation numbers and that my client would be placed in the queue based upon the date and time of her case and would be notified when a number became available to her.  The case could not be “granted” until then.  So, my client, while relieved that she will ultimately be granted, remains in a precarious limbo by another absurd anomaly of our immigration laws- that only 4000 of these may be granted in a given year.  Who knows where Congress got that number?

Here's where Congress got the 4000 number!

Here’s where Congress got the 4000 number!

My client is just one of millions of people left in a state of limbo by Congress’ inability to address the crisis of immigration law.  In this case, my client has DACA and I probably could have gotten the removal case dismissed.  The government stipulated to relief, meaning she would get her green card.  It is hard to say that, in this one case, the problem is the administration.  Like all other arbitrary caps and quotas, such as the H-1B cap, the former cap on asylee adjustment, and caps on immigrant visas, Congress needs to act.

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).

If Nigella Lawson was Found to be Inadmissible, that Finding is Suspect and, Even if she is, she has a Terrific Case for a Waiver!

3 Apr

Nigella

From across the pond comes word now that Nigella Lawson, she of the cookbook and lifestyle empire, has been denied admission to the United States, due to reports of her testimony regarding her use of cocaine and marijuana.  Now, Nigella Lawson has never been convicted of illegal drug possession or distribution.  So what gives?  Well, what appears to have happened is that Ms. Lawson was determined to be inadmissible to the United States because she may have “admitt[ed] to having committed  . . . a violation of any law or regulation of a state, the United States, or a foreign country related to a controlled substance.”  This ground of inadmissibility does not require a conviction of a drug offense, just an admission.  But is Ms. Lawson’s apparent admission in a United Kingdom court sufficient for her to be found inadmissible?  It seems highly doubtful.

Here’s what we know.  Nigella Lawson is a highly successful businesswoman.  She has authored a number of cookbooks and lifestyle books.  She has had her own television shows and has appeared in a number of tv shows about cooking and entertaining.   Her private life burst out into the open in July 2013, when she was photographed being grasped around the neck by her husband, Charles Saatchi.  Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lawson was a witness in the fraud trial of two of her assistants, who had been accused of wrongly using Saatchi’s credit cards.  Their defense was that their use of the credit cards was allowed by Lawson in exchange for them not revealing her drug use.  Lawson testified in court and stated that she had used cocaine and marijuana.  Fast forward to last weekend.  At London’s Heathrow airport, Lawson was apparently denied boarding a flight to Los Angeles.  Apparently, Ms. Lawson has been found to be inadmissible due to her admission of a violation of a law relating to a controlled substance.

U.S. law allows the Department of Homeland Security to find a person inadmissible if she has admitted to a violation of a law involving a controlled substance.  It would seem simple enough.  However, the process required to make that finding is tightly controlled by longstanding caselaw.  Specifically, in the 1957 decision in Matter of K-, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that, in order to find someone inadmissible for admission of a controlled substance, these steps must be followed: (1) the individual must be provided with a definition of the offense with all essential elements; and (2) the individual must be provided with an explanation of the offense in laymen’s terms.  Since the statute does not makes someone inadmissible for use of an illegal drug, but the violation of a law related to a controlled substance, DHS must identify the statute violated and the person must be provided with an explanation of the elements of the crime and must admit to all those elements.  This process is usually undertaken at a port-of-entry between a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer and an applicant for admission.  A person can not be found to be inadmissible if these requirements are not satisfied.

This is why the explanation for Nigella Lawson’s inadmissibility in unconvincing.  Perhaps there were other reasons why she could not board that plane.  But, if she were indeed deemed to be inadmissible based upon her admissions of cocaine and marijuana use in UK court, it would seem that these procedural requirements were not honored as it does not appear that any sort of interview between DHS and Lawson ever occurred.  In addition, it seems unlikely that Ms. Lawson, in her testimony ever specificallty admitted to violating a specific law.  In other words, Lawson probably did not testify as follows: “Yes, I knowingly and willfully possessed a substance that I knew to be cocaine.”  And it is unlikely that someone then said, “Aha!  So you admit violating the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971?”  To which, she probably did not reply, “Yes.”  It is not enough for inadmissibility for a person simply to say “I used cocaine.”  They must admit violating a law and that law must be identified.  Where?  When?  Was it really cocaine?  All these questions need to be answered.  And Lawson has an absolute right under U.S. law to say that she is “not guilty.”  Therefore, it seems that, if she was denied boarding that plane on these grounds, she was wrongly found to be inadmissible.

If she is, in fact, inadmissible, Lawson would be an excellent candidate for a waiver of inadmissibility.  The law provides a generous waiver of inadmissibility for people seeking to enter the U.S. temporarily.  Known as a 212(d)(3) waiver, the waiver allows inadmissible people to enter the U.S. despite their inadmissibility.  In considering an application for a waiver, the DHS must weigh the following factors: (1) the risk of harm to society if the applicant is admitted; (2) the seriousness of the ground of inadmissibility and (3) the reasons the applicant is seeking admission.  In assessing a potential Lawson application for a waiver, it would seems that she has a very strong case.  First, it can not be seriously argued that Ms. Lawson is any threat to U.S. society if allowed into the U.S.  Second, it is hard to say that this is a very serious ground of inadmissibility.  It is not a conviction, it does not relate to violence, the sale of drugs, or weapons.  It deals with the recreational use of illegal drugs in the past, an act that many millions of Americans have engaged in.  As far as grounds of inadmissibility go, this would seem to be on the lower end of the serious scale.  Finally, certainly Ms. Nigella 2Lawson has very good reasons to enter the U.S.  An accomplished businesswoman overseeing an empire of lifestyle media, her commercial ties to the U.S. are substantial.  U.S. businesses would lose out if they are unable to continue to collaborate with Ms. Lawson.  Applications for 212(d)(3) waivers are made to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security and both must agree to grant the waiver.  The legislative history and the caselaw show that the the waiver is supposed to be generously given.

In the end, Ms. Lawson should be able to get on with her life and her travel to the U.S.  For now, no doubt she is reeling from this latest indignity.  If you are reading, Nigella, there is hope.  We can help!