Tag Archives: immigration clinic

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 In 2011, however, Tanya’s U visa was revoked after she was found guilty of a criminal offense during which she was acting in self-defense against her abuser.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: 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).

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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.

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.