Tag Archives: immigration court

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.

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).

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).

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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.