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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!

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.

GUEST BLOG: Asylum Victory by GW Law Student in Immigration Court

2 Jan

By: Jessica Leal, Student Attorney in the George Washington Law School Immigration Clinic and 3L at GW Law

Jessica Leal Picture

On November 26, 2013, my client, M-L-R-, won the opportunity to sleep at night.  M-L-R- was granted asylum by Immigration Judge Paul W. Schmidt.  She fled El Salvador after she was brutally raped and beaten by an MS-13 gang leader and was told that she would have to be subject to his sexual demands in the future.  A mere twenty-two days after this horrific attack, M-L-R- left her husband, her family, and the only country that she had ever known, to journey to the United States.  Like so many generations of immigrants before her, she believed that our country was the only one where she would be able to escape her persecutor’s reach and establish a new life.  Fortunately, she will now have the chance to petition for her husband and live in peace out of harm’s way.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Schmidt encouraged M-L-R- to thank her lawyers.  I could not have asked for a better client or better colleagues for my first Immigration Court hearing.  I am a Student Attorney in the GW Immigration Clinic, and I represented M-L-R- under the supervision of Professor Alberto M. Benitez and Jonathan C. Bialosky, Esq.  I started working on this case in July 2013, over a-year-and-a-half after the Clinic undertook my client’s representation.  I am the fourth Student Attorney to act on her behalf.  M-L-R- was previously represented by Rachael Petterson (Attorney at Benach Ragland LLP and former Interim Director of the Clinic), Jason Boyd, Denisse Velarde-Cubek, and Cleveland Fairchild.  Each of these individuals helped to craft my client’s affidavit, compile supporting evidence, and obtain her work authorization.  In addition to their legal roles, they met with M-L-R- countless times and helped her to work through the traumatic events that she endured.

This semester, I was tasked with preparing the pre-trial filing (PTF) and representing M-L-R- in her individual hearing, which was originally scheduled to take place on October 1, 2013.  When I met M-L-R- in July, I did not have very much experience meeting with clients or discussing persecution.  My lack of experience was further compounded by the language barrier.  M-L-R- is a Spanish-speaker and, although I am also a native Spanish-speaker, I found it incredibly difficult to converse with M-L-R- about the terrible details of her persecution.  I had never had to discuss rape or abuse in Spanish.  When I did not know how to translate a word, I would gesture and she would fill in the gaps.  M-L-R- helped me to work through my own insecurities with the language as she worked through the details of her story.  This was only one of the many surprising challenges that I encountered in representing a client in Immigration Court for the first time.

I have had several immigration-related internships throughout my law school career.  Each of these internships introduced me to a different piece of the complex immigration system puzzle.  Although I attended individual hearings before this semester and was exposed to asylum law, I could not imagine the stress of preparing for a hearing.  Nor could I have anticipated the number of people and details that affect the outcome of an asylum claim.  In this case, I had the good fortune of working with an experienced professor, a knowledgeable staff attorney, and an excellent group of Student Attorneys.  I was able to rely on this support system in confronting and overcoming the many obstacles that led to my client’s victory.  I also benefitted from working with an extraordinarily helpful DHS trial attorney, Justin Leone.  Mr. Leone patiently discussed the intricacies of particular social group (PSG) claims and was prepared well in advance of the hearing to discuss the issues.

After I submitted the PTF two weeks before the original hearing date, I encountered yet another hurdle in the process of winning asylum.  I checked EOIR’s automated phone system to make sure of the hearing date and time.  The system reflected that the next hearing was a master calendar hearing scheduled for March 20, 2014, not an individual hearing scheduled for October 1, 2013.  I notified Professor Benitez and proceeded to contact the Arlington Immigration Court.  A legal assistant attempted to figure out why the date had been changed, but she could not find an answer in the computer system.  Judge Schmidt’s legal assistant, Glenda Britt, was extraordinary helpful in resolving this problem.  She checked with Judge Schmidt and found an open time slot on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving because the original time slot had already been filled.  Judge Schmidt helped to find a date and time that would accommodate my academic schedule.  This was a huge victory at the time and proved to be serendipitous as the federal government shut down on October 1, 2013.  There is no way of knowing how much longer M-L-R- would have had to wait for her day in court if the hearing had not been rescheduled.

In the days leading up to the rescheduled hearing, I felt overwhelmed by how little I knew about PSG case law.  Objectively speaking, there is almost no way of knowing every case in every jurisdiction that might affect the outcome of a claim; however, I could not help but feel insecure about my knowledge base.  To that end, mooting was very useful.  It helped me to realize that I could argue the law without specific case names and that, for this particular hearing, the case law was not as important as the facts.  In addition to my insecurity about case law, I worried that I had not reviewed the record sufficient times and that I would forget essential details. To help combat my fears, I prepared several documents to take to the hearing, including: a list of themes to guide my questioning, a case chart with key facts, a timeline, and an outline of my closing statement.  To further minimize the stress, I spent the weekend before the hearing unwinding with family.  I also made sure that I arrived in Crystal City over an hour before the hearing and encouraged M-L-R- to do the same.

At the hearing, I tried to keep the amount of paper on the table at a minimum to avoid cluttering my space and relying too much on the documents.  I kept my note-taking to a minimum to ensure that I maintained eye contact with M-L-R-.  I also attempted to smile often, however that proved difficult because I tend to maintain a serious expression when I am focused.  In lieu of smiling, I nodded as often as I could.  My voice was shaky when I began the direct examination, but it steadied as I progressed.  I felt most confident as I delivered my closing statement because it afforded me the opportunity to piece together my client’s testimony.

In preparing for this hearing, I learned that winning an asylum case is just as much about the facts as it is about the people presenting them and the people adjudicating them.  M-L-R- had particularly compelling facts; however, the gang element of her claim presented an obstacle.  With the help of the Clinic, she was able to submit a thorough PTF articulating the nuances of her PSG.  Judge Schmidt also carefully considered every detail of her claim and appreciated the fact that I was a Student Attorney.  His flexibility and patience allowed me to get through my questioning and my closing statement without significant interruptions.

It was very helpful to be able to moot in anticipation of the hearing several times and to have an experienced attorney, Rachael Petterson, serve as the Immigration Judge.  Mooting almost replicated the experience of appearing in court, but nothing came close to actually representing an individual in a high-stakes situation.  Despite the four months of preparation, I felt anxious.  When I walked through the gate in the courtroom, I did not know how I would react.  I realized that I work well under pressure, but that I have nervous habits.  As much as I tried, I could not stop leaning forward and I often clenched my hands.  I also had to remind myself that this was a real hearing and that I could not jump up and down when Judge Schmidt announced his decision.            approved

Preparing for this hearing was very time-consuming.  In addition to compiling the PTF and mooting for the hearing, I had other academic and extracurricular commitments.  As I got closer to the hearing date, I had to budget my time carefully to keep up with my obligations.  I also had to forego taking on additional commitments to ensure that I devoted enough time to the hearing.  Ultimately, the hearing itself was not as stressful as the months of preparation.  I know that, when I become an attorney, I will not have the luxury of spending months on a case, but I am confident that my nerves will fade with time.  This client, this hearing, and this victory reassured me that there is no other type of law that I would rather practice than Immigration.  I am ecstatic to have been a part of the team that won M-L-R- the chance to sleep at night, and I would not trade the experience of preparing for her hearing for the world!

Witnessing Justice: Transgender Woman Granted Asylum in Baltimore by FOBR Liz Keyes

22 Nov

This is a guest post by FOBR Liz Keyes, who direct the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore.

Today was a beautiful day in Baltimore immigration court. A young woman from Honduras, born male but always feeling female inside, won asylum after suffering relentless torment from her earliest days until she fled at age 17. Everyone she ever knew in Honduras treated her with cruelty, from the teachers who brutally punished her, to the classmates hurling slurs, to her father who beat her viciously, and her sister who attacked with her with a machete when she saw our client wearing girl’s clothes. The brutality escalated the older she got, and after being attacked with knives and a gun by homophobic gang members, she finally fled, deeply traumatized by her experience. She knew nothing of asylum in the United States, and did not apply within one year, as the law requires. When she came to the attention of immigration authorities in New Jersey, she was placed in detention for months–and the wonderful non-profit Immigration Equality found her there, filed an initial asylum application for her, and got her out of immigration detention.

Since she had friends in Maryland, she moved here and became a client of the University of Baltimore School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. We assigned her case to a second year law student, Jose Perez, who threw himself into the case, interviewing our client many times, finding a psychologist through Physicians for Human Rights who could provide an evaluation of our client’s level of trauma, and developing an extraordinarily comprehensive set of evidence corroborating exactly how bad life was for transgendered individuals in Honduras, as well as a compelling legal brief addressing the complications of the case. Jose could have handed off his work to another student this fall, but he wanted to stay on and see it through–even knowing that his firstborn child was due three weeks before the hearing date.

Today, his work and commitment paid off.

As a clinical teacher, it is hard to let a student stand in the well of the court alone, even when you know how prepared they are. The burden feels too great, and I well remember being in the same position twice as a law student. But he had done his preparation, and as he said in a last email to me last night, “LET’S DO THIS THING.”

So he did. And it went so well that I felt bewildered. Grateful and moved, but bewildered. First, the attorney for the government let him know it was a strong case, and he only had a few reservations. Then the judge said that because the written application was so extensive and detailed, we could skip over much of our planned testimony. Jose asked a few questions about our client’s childhood experiences, eliciting some tremendous emotion, after which he simply asked her if her statement in the record was truthful and correct. She said yes, and Jose moved quickly through remaining issues, including what the client’s hopes were for her life here. This question finally elicited a small smile, as she said she hoped she could marry some day and adopt a child. She spoke of how she wanted to study and work, if the court was kind enough to grant her status here.

And when the government assured the Judge that it had no opposition to asylum, the Judge issued her opinion, welcomed our client to America, and said, “America is grateful you are here.”

The words stunned me. And perhaps I misheard. I tend to prepare for the worst, and imagine every way a case could go off track. So I was already disoriented by how well everything had gone. But this is what I heard, and these words moved me deeply. They seemed to create a perfect symmetry: this young woman who had known nothing but suffering and rejection for the first 17 years of her life, was being accorded respect and welcome by our government, by every single individual in that courtroom.

I know that life for transgender people in the United States remains dangerous and difficult. But this morning was a beautiful, inspiring measure of how far our society has moved toward tolerance and acceptance. The child who had been so unloved was finally welcomed, and not one person this morning stood in the way of that just outcome.

For our client, today meant safety, and the promise that she could start building the life she dreamed of, free from fear of returning to a country where she would likely be killed for being herself.

For my student, it was a beautiful reminder of why he had come to law school, and why he wants to be an immigration lawyer.

And for me, it was a much needed reminder of what justice can look like. It was a privilege to be in that court this morning to observe justice in action. May it always be so. La lucha sigue.

Congratulations to the National Center for Transgender Equality: Let’s Hope ENDA Does Better than CIR!

13 Nov

Our moment

Last night, Jen Cook and I went to the National Council for Transgender Equality’s  (NCTE) 10th Anniversary event.  The evening was themed “Our Moment,” reflecting the organization’s intention to build upon the successes of the gay rights movement in the past year, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Windsor decision, and the many states that have enacted gay marriage.  In fact, even as the party went on, the festivities were interrupted to announce that Hawaii became the 16th state to allow for gay marriage.  As acceptance of full rights for gays and lesbians has grown tremendously over the past few years, acceptance of the essential humanity of the transgendered has not moved as quickly.  There have been victories- the Affordable Care Act provides increased access to needed medical services to transgender individuals, transgender individuals such as Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, and Lana Wachowski have upped awareness of trans issues in our culture.  Even Chelsea Manning has forced us to confront the dilemmas facing trans people in the military and in prison.

There was palpable excitement in the room last night.  Last week the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal nationwide to fire or discriminate in employment issues against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Employment discrimination against trans individuals is a serious problem, with 90 percent of trans individuals reporting that they suffered some form of employment discrimination in their lives.  The Senate ENDA bill is termed “trans-inclusive,” because it has expressly included discrimination protections for transgender individuals, whereas previous incarnations had sacrificed the “T” in GLBT as protections for trans individuals were just a bridge too far for some.  But this years ENDA is trans-inclusive and is now headed to the House of Representatives.   As immigration lawyers, our hearts sank as we heard people express optimism over the chances for its passage in the House.  Over the last four months, we have watched as the House has run out the clock on immigration reform.  Even after being confronted by young activists who brought their plights to him over breakfast, Speaker John Boehner made it clear today that no immigration legislation is moving this year.

 

If anyone believes that House members can be moved by hearing the personal stories of those effected by our terrible immigration laws or due to employment discrimination because of gender identity, Boehner’s cold response to these teenagers who spoke truth to power should put that notion to rest.  George Washington called the Senate the “cooling saucer” because it was meant to temper the excitable House of Representatives.  That role has changed and a group of 40 Tea Party Republicans in the House can stymie the hopes and aspirations of immigrants and trans men and women.  It is truly ironic because both pieces of legislation easily passed the Senate and would easily pass the House if the speaker would just bring it to a vote.  Yet, the Speaker cares more about the needs of his 40 Tea Party members than he does the suffering of 11 million immigrants or the need for employment discrimination protection for vulnerable minorities.

Our involvement in trans issues began when young trans women came into our office and asked us to help them apply for asylum.  Most had come from Central America and they all had stories of beatings, rapes, and rejection by their family.  They braved smugglers and human traffickers to make it to the U.S., where they found a chance to be themselves.  We have been able to obtain asylum for dozens of transgender individuals and not just from Central America.  Persecution of the non-gender-conforming is a worldwide pestilence.  To hear and know their stories and their bravery in leaving their homes under dangerous circumstances to have a chance to simply be themselves fills us with great admiration and respect for these individuals.  Their needs are far more fundamental than a job.  They come to America to be who they are.  It all starts there.  Over the years of representing trans individuals in asylum and then for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship, we have watched them grow into themselves, get stable employment, start relationships and family, and give back to their communities.  To watch a human being develop to her potential is like watching a flower bloom.  You can never grow tired of it.

The NTCE has done tremendous work to bring trans civil rights to the forefront of the political arena.  Like immigration reform, I am confident that full civil rights for trans people will occur in the future.  Last night, we heard from 33 year old Dylan Orr, a White House appointee, and 23 year old Sarah McBride, a political activist, about their professional experiences as a trans man and trans woman respectively.  They are the future and that gives us confidence and joy.