Tag Archives: asylum

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.

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.

Confidentiality of Asylum Applications at Risk

21 May

If the internet is good for anything, it is exposing a person to articles and information one ordinarily would not encounter.  So it was when I stumbled across this article on Fox News Latino.  The article discusses the Mexican government’s statement that Gaston Azcarraga, the former owner of the defunct Mexicana Airlines was in the Unit109-mexicana-airlinesed States and seeking asylum.  At BR, we know nothing about Mr. Azcarraga’s claim to asylum or whether it is likely to succeed.  But we do know that asylum applications are supposed to be confidential and that it is particularly important that a claim to asylum not be revealed to the government of the country where the applicant fears persecution.  To see a Mexican government official state that an Mexican national is seeking asylum in the United States is inimical to the entire concept of asylum and undermines the trust in the asylum system that confidentiality is supposed to enhance.

I have been to hundreds of asylum interviews.  They all begin the same way with the asylum officer informing the applicant that asylum applications are confidential and that the information provided by the applicant will not be shared with the applicant’s home country.  The reason for this promise of confidentiality is obvious.  If an asylum applicant is not confident that her information will be kept secret, she is unlikely to be able to tell the full story of why she is seeking asylum.  Because a grant of asylum is anything but guaranteed and there is a good chance that an asylum applicant will be returned to the country where she fears persecution, without the promise of secrecy, an asylum applicant will understandably be reticent to tell the full story.

The requirement of confidentiality is enshrined into the asylum regulations.  The regulations provide that the information in an application for asylum, including the fact that an individual applied for asylum, shall be kept confidential.  There is an exception for disclosure to U.S. government officials under limited circumstances.  There is also an exception that allows for disclosure “at the discretion of the Attorney General.”  While that latter exception may seem wide enough to drive a truck through, such an exercise of discretion has been rare.  If the Attorney General is increasingly exercising his authority to disclose the fact of an asylum application, that abuse of discretion would undermine the entire regime of confidentiality.  It appears that this is a growing problem.  Friend of Benach Ragland (FOBR) Jason Dzubow wrote last fall that U.S. Embassy officials in China routinely violate the confidentiality provisions of the law. And, of course, some rogue official revealed a few years ago that President Obama’s aunt had applied for asylum.

In rare circumstances, the unlawful disclosure of an application for asylum has been found to generate a new basis to seek asylum.  In an unpublished opinion last year, the Board of Immigration Appeals reopened asylum proceedings based upon a breach of confidentiality.  The BIA wrote:

The respondent’s motion alleges that a United States official advised her that in obtaining the respondent’s travel documents, for the purpose of removal, he communicated by email with the Chinese Consulate in such a way as to breach the confidentiality requirements at 8 C.F .R. § 1208.6.  According to the respondent, she asked the official for copies of the emails, and he advised her that he deleted them. The respondent has proffered evidence of her attempts to obtain copies of the emails as well as other evidence concerning information supplied to the Chinese Consulate. The respondent asserts that circumstances in China have changed based in part on the government’s awareness that the respondent is a failed asylum seeker.  While the DHS has filed a statement of opposition to the motion, the DHS does not dispute the respondent’s claims that confidentiality requirements may have been breached.  We find it appropriate to reopen pursuant to 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a) and remand the record to the Immigration Judge for proceedings on whether the respondent is eligible for withholding of removal under the Act or protection under the Convention Against Torture in light of the new evidence in this matter.

Now that Mexican officials are aware of the application, it seems that Mr. Azcarraga’s claim has grown stronger.  There is widespread acknowledgement of the heavy hand of Mexican law enforcement.  Ironically, the desire to punish Mr. Azcarraga may have grown and his claim approved as a result of  this revelation and the embarrassment of the Mexican government.

Another 4th Circuit Social Group Victory! When is mental illness not like hating broccoli?

2 Feb

appeal-granted

Last week, we wrote about the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Martinez v. Holder, in which the 4th Circuit held that “former gang members” can qualify as a particular social group for the purpose of establishing eligibility for asylum.  Martinez is one of the two cases we wrote about in October in the hope that the 4th Circuit would bring some clarity and reason to the jurisprudence on the meaning of “particular social group” as a basis for asylum eligibility.  We now focus on the victory for immigrants in Temu v. Holder, in which the 4th Circuit decided that “people with bipolar disorder who exhibit erratic behavior” satisfies the requirements for designation as a particular social group and can establish eligibility for asylum.

Mr. Temu is a Tanzanian national whose mental illness caused him to enter the traffic on the streets of Dar Es Salaam to direct traffic because he believed that he had the power to prevent accidents with his hands.  This behavior caught the attention of Tanzanian authorities who deposited him in a hospital, where he was subjected to beatings by the nurses.  Tanzanian custom sees mental illness as demonic inhabitation and treatment is in the form of beatings.  During these beatings, Mr. Temu was told “this is how we treat people like you.”  They referred to him by the name of “mwenda wazimu,” a Tanzanian term for those with visible severe mental illness which literally means “demon possessed.”

Mr. Temu eventually made his way to the U.S. and sought asylum arguing that he faced persecution on account of his membership in the social group of individuals with bipolar disorder who exhibit erratic behavior.  The Immigration Judge denied Mr. Temu asylum stating that his proposed social group lacked the required elements of immutability, particularity, and social visibility.   Moreover, the IJ held that Mr. Temu was not persecuted on account of this social group.  However, the IJ did find that Mr. Temu merited relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) because he had been tortured by his nurses and guard because he was mentally ill.  The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the IJ’s ruling.

The 4th circuit rejected the IJ and BIA’s reasoning.  “It is impossible to square the BIA’s conclusions with the undisputed facts of this case.”  Reviewing the fact that Mr. Temu credibly testified that nurses beat him and told4th cir him that they were doing it to him because he was mwenda wazimu, the 4th Circuit stated, “we fail to see how a rational factfinder could simultaneously credit these facts and also conclude that Mr. Temu was not persecuted because of his mental illness and its manifestations.”  The court continued “it is difficult to imagine evidence that is more persuasive and unequivocal than a persecutor directly telling a victim, “this is how we treat people like you.”  The court then exposed the inconsistency by noting that shortly after finding that Mr. Temu was not persecuted because of his mental illness, the IJ granted CAT relief stating that “he was singled out for more frequent beatings because he was mentally ill.”  The court stated that “logical acrobatics” would be required to reconcile the conflicting findings on CAT relief and asylum eligibility.

The court also engaged in an expansive analysis of the BIA’s requirements for classification of a particular social group: (1) immutability; (2) particularity; and (3) social visibility.  Of these requirements, the social visibility standard has been the most problematic.  The court stated unequivocally that “social visibility does not mean ocular visibility.”  In other words, for a group to be socially visible, it is not necessary that all members be identified by sight.  The court quoted a dissent from Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit in which he explained that, for example, in the United States “Vietnam veterans, . . . cancer survivors, blind people, Cajuns, practitioners of Falun Gong, and hippies” would likely be identified as social groups whereas “second-born children and haters of broccoli would not.”  Social visibility relates to whether society views them as a group and not whether they are identifiable on sight.  The court found that since Tanzanian society views the “mwenda wazimu” as a group, that is all that the social visibility test requires.  The court also discussed particularity, a requirement that demands that a proposed social group have identifiable boundaries.  The IJ noted that not all bipolar people engage in erratic behavior and not all those who engage in erratic behavior are bipolar.  The 4th Circuit held that the BIA ad IJs must consider the social group formulation as a whole and not broken into component parts.  When taken as a whole, the social group of “bipolar individuals who exhibit erratic behavior” is sufficient to particularize the group.  Finally, the court found that the BIA and IJ were wrong on whether Mr. Temu’s condition was immutable.  The IJ had concluded that since Mr. Temu’s condition could be controlled with medication, it was not immutable.  However, the IJ also made the factual findings that Mr. Temu had been abandoned by his family in Tanzania and that the medicines he required were not widely available in Tanzania.  The court concluded that “Mr. Temu’s membership in his proposed group is not something he has the power to change.”

One judge on the three judge panel dissented and stated that he would defer to the BIA’s findings.

The case has been sent back to the immigration court and it is likely given this ruling that Mr. Temu will receive asylum.  This will help Mr. Temu get the assistance and medication he needs to remain stable and a chance at a life far removed from the beatings and deprivations he endured in his home country due to his mental illness.

This case was brought by some outstanding lawyers, Katie Bukrinsky and Thomas Tynan at McDermott Will & Emery, working pro bono.  It is a case that was identified by the fierce and lovely lawyers from the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition and Stephen Dekovich of CAIR submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the organization, which has labored for years to advance the rights of the mentally ill in immigration proceedings.  Finally, I had the honor to participate in moot court events to prepare these talented advocates for oral argument.  BR sends our heartiest congratulations to all those involved and to Mr. Temu for having the courage and resourcefulness to take this to the circuit after being shut out by the Judge and the BIA.

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!

Guest Blog: NOTHING IS PERFECT: TWO CLIENTS, TWO STUDENT ATTORNEYS AND THE IMMIGRATION SYSTEM THAT BINDS THEM

9 Dec

This article was prepared by the George Washington Law School Immigration Clinic and was written by  GW Law Professor Alberto Benitez (second from left) and Immigration Clinic Alumni Cleveland Fairchild (fifth from left), Binta Mamadou (seventh from left), and Rebekah Niblock (fourth from left).

rsz_0196-l

One of the most common sound bites to emerge from the ongoing immigration debate is that the immigration system is somehow “broken.” I have directed the George Washington Law School Immigration Clinic since 1996, and I do not share this view. The reality is that most critics have never set foot in an immigration court or a detention center.

The immigration system is not broken. The system has flaws and there is room for improvement, but it works well for most people in most cases. The student-attorneys who I supervise are all in their third year of law school and come from different walks of life. Despite their differences, the students share a common objective of wanting to help people and be a part of an immigration system that saves lives and reunites families.

A Great Big Hug

A great big hug exchanged between a student-attorney and her client’s two children exemplifies the immigration system working as it should. Earlier in the day, the student-attorney accompanied her client to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Office to figure out what was going on with the client’s case. The client had recently come to the United States with her two children to flee gang-related violence.  The client found herself in a new country with a different language and swept into an immigration system that she did not understand.

As the student-attorney stood in line waiting to speak to an ICE official, the client stood trembling with her two children at her side. The client began to pray and perform the holy trinity in Spanish. After waiting for some time, the student-attorney asked to speak directly with the ICE officer managing the client’s case. The ICE official agreed to meet with the student-attorney and informed her that the client was in removal proceedings and would be receiving a court date shortly. The client was utterly confused and she did not understand the conversation until the student-attorney translated the information into Spanish. Even though the client learned that she was in removal proceedings, she felt a sense of relief because she now had answers and knew exactly what was going on in her case. When the student-attorney and the client parted, the client’s children reached up and gave the student-attorney a great big hug. While trips to the ICE Field Office are understandably terrifying for immigrants, news to the clients that they will have their day in court is proof that the system works.

She Fell to Her Knees

As the woman fell to her knees outside the courtroom following her hearing, I could tell that the student-attorney was caught off-guard. The woman was in tears, but these were tears of joy. After more than two years of uncertainties, countless meetings, and medical and psychological evaluations, she could now sigh in relief. At that point, she knew that she would never have to return to the country responsible for the disappearances and deaths of several family members and where she had suffered for expressing unpopular political views.

I observed the student-attorney’s reaction. I could tell that she maintained her composure because lawyers are taught to be stoic, particularly in front of their clients. In those few minutes, I recalled the student once telling me that she had dreamed about the ICE attorney who she had to face during the trial. I remembered how hard the student-attorney worked on behalf of the client and the emotional roller coaster that she endured. Her personal commitment to the case was extraordinary-she even gave the client a suit to wear to court! Naturally, she questioned the strength of the case and whether the client would be granted asylum even though the client’s claim was compelling.

On the day of the trial, the student-attorney went to court prepared to advocate for her client. After both sides made their arguments, there was a long period of silence while the immigration judge made notes and flipped through the evidence. Eventually, he looked up and announced his ruling.

That afternoon was a victory, but not just for the client or the student-attorney. It was a victory for the immigration system. It was evidence that the system works.

Keep in Mind What the Immigration Laws Are Supposed To Do

In considering what it is that we want to fix, we should remember what our immigration laws were written to accomplish. Lost in the talk of immigration reform is the fact that the current U.S. system is the world’s best at reuniting separated families, allowing foreigners to invest in the economy, and bringing talented students from around the world to our universities. The system is good at providing persecuted refugees with a chance to resettle in the U.S. and establish a better future. Many countries have smaller populations, smaller borders, and less demand for visas; yet, they have settled on having immigration systems that are hopelessly complicated and inefficient. It is my desire that any upcoming reform focus primarily on the day-to-day activities that an immigration system must necessarily accomplish. If the overwhelming focus is on having a system that effectively keeps people out, we might end up with a system that does not do much of anything at all. To me, that sounds broken.