Above: Munira Okovic, a young woman from Bosnia who was granted asylum with the help of Clinic students, speaking at a reception celebrating the Asylum Clinic's tenth anniversary.
In the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, law students handle every aspect of representation in high-stakes cases that determine whether a client who has fled political, religious or other persecution in his or her home country will be granted asylum in the United States. In this intensive, one-semester program, students develop their legal skills and learn to exercise professional responsibility and judgment. They deepen their understanding of human rights issues while providing an essential service to clients desperately in need of representation.
Since its founding in 2002, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has handled 101 asylum cases to completion. In 93 of those cases, the Clinic’s clients were granted asylum or other forms of relief from removal. In many instances, spouses and children were also beneficiaries of the asylum grant, so the total number of refugees who have been able to secure legal status in the United States as a result of the Clinic’s work is into the hundreds. Many of the Clinic’s past clients are now U.S. citizens.
The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2012. It was honored with the Myra M. Oliver Award by the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition for exceptional service to Connecticut’s immigrant communities, awarded at the annual Immigrant Day held at the Connecticut State Capitol. Over the past several years, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has also engaged in innovative interdisciplinary collaborations with the UConn School of Social Work and UConn Health Center which has enhanced services to clients while enriching the professional education of law, social work, and psychology students.
Typically, 20 law students participate in the intensive Asylum and Human Rights Clinic program each year (12 in the fall semester, 8 in the spring). Students who have taken the Clinic may continue to do supervised casework in subsequent semesters by enrolling in Advanced Clinic Fieldwork. Other law students provide valuable assistance to the Clinic's clients, and gain insight into international human rights issues and legal advocacy, by serving as language interpreters in the Clinic's cases as student employees or pro bono volunteers.
More than 200 law students have participated in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic since the program started in the fall of 2002. The legal experience, exposure to human rights issues, and commitment to public service that students have gained through the program have had a lasting impact on their careers. Asylum and Human Rights Clinic alumni have gone on to judicial clerkships, positions with the U.S. Justice Department, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, public interest law jobs, and positions in large and small law firms. Click here for an article profiling one of the Asylum Clinic’s alumni.
Clinical Professor of Law Jon Bauer is the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic’s director. He has been a member of the law school faculty since 1988, and has taught clinical and non-clinical courses focusing on civil rights, employment law, poverty law and mediation. He has been teaching the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic since 2002.
Anna Cabot co-teaches the program as the William R. Davis Clinical Teaching Fellow. Anna, who joined the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic in the summer of 2014, previously served as managing attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas. She has also worked for Asylum Access, advocating on behalf of refugees in Tanzania, and for the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic is an intensive, nine-credit program, in which students
- Obtain extensive experience working with a client, strengthening their interviewing and counseling skills;
- Gain cross-cultural sensitivity, learning to communicate effectively across differences of language and culture;
- Conduct intensive legal research in a rapidly-evolving area of law, and learn about human rights conditions in the client’s home country;
- Thoroughly investigate the facts, locate corroborating evidence, and organize the supporting evidence into a persuasive package;
- Work with expert witnesses, including country conditions experts, physicians and mental health professionals;
- Draft numerous case documents, including an asylum application, client and witness affidavits, and a legal brief;
- Present evidence, testimony and arguments at a hearing before the United States Immigration Court or the Asylum Office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
There are three major facets of the Clinic program: casework, case team meetings, and seminars. The casework is central. Students, working together in teams of two, typically spend a minimum of 30 hours per week working on their clients' cases. Each student team meets at least once a week with a faculty advisor for an in-depth discussion of the casework. These meetings are used to help students recognize, analyze and resolve the multitude of strategic, tactical, ethical, and interpersonal issues that arise in representing clients. Clinic students and faculty, together with clients and witnesses, also participate in "mootings" to prepare for each hearing.
The Asylum Clinic seminar meets once a week, for three hours. Classes are used for a variety of purposes. Early in the semester, a few classes are used to survey the substantive law involved in Clinic cases. Other classes are devoted to teaching essential lawyering skills that students will use in their casework; many of these classes involve role-playing exercises or workshops based on students' actual cases. Class time is also used for "case rounds," in which students share and learn from each other's experiences.
The remarkable stories of some of the cases recently handled by the Asylum and Human Rights are told below.
In May 2014, Tejal Patel ’14 and Ruth Vaughan ’14 convinced an immigration judge to grant asylum to a woman from Honduras who was raped and threatened with death by an abusive ex-boyfriend, a member of one of the notorious Central American gangs, after she tried to leave him. Their client was deeply traumatized by her experiences and had difficulty talking about her abuse. Through sensitive and empathetic interviewing, Ruth and Tejal gained their client’s trust and were gradually able to get her to provide the horrific details. Their legal brief made a compelling case that domestic violence, in countries where women cannot get effective governmental protection from their abusers, constitutes a basis for asylum – an issue surprisingly still unsettled in the courts. Based on the submission of written evidence and the brief, counsel for the Department of Homeland Security agreed, at the start of a hearing in immigration court, that our client qualified for asylum, a concession that is rarely made.
Samem Jarbarkhail ’15 and Ivan Tereschenko ’15 took on the extraordinary challenge of representing a 13-year old deaf girl from a Central Asian country. In her family home, she had never learned to communicate and could not understand what was going on around her. She was frequently beaten and never allowed to leave the house. Her father eventually dropped her off at an orphanage, where she came to the attention of an organization that helped her learn sign language, enrolled her in school, and arranged for a scholarship in the U.S. Ivan and Samem balanced thoroughness with child-appropriate sensitivity in gathering the facts, obtaining supporting evidence, and preparing their client for an interview before the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office. They persuaded the asylum officer that their client was persecuted due to both her disability and her gender, and obtained a favorable asylum decision in June 2014.
In November 2013, an immigration judge granted asylum at the conclusion of a trial handled by Lauren Kostes ’15 and Jade Baldwin ’15 for a young woman from Central America. Their client suffered years of physical and sexual abuse from her father before fleeing to the United States. Despite two complaints to the police, the authorities in her country did nothing to protect her. Asylum grants based on child abuse are rare, and the success of this case depended heavily on effective advocacy.
In December 2012, Ariel McPherson ’13 and Brian Ajodhi ’14 won a grant of asylum in the Hartford Immigration Court for a young woman from Haiti who lost her home in the 2010 earthquake and was forced to live in a squalid tent city. There, she was sexually assaulted and saw a friend raped and killed. She fled Haiti in a small boat to seek safety. Over the course of a two-day hearing, Ariel and Brian persuaded the immigration judge that women exposed to sexual violence in the Haitian tent cities are a “particular social group” eligible for asylum, and that their client, although she might be able to avoid future persecution by living elsewhere in Haiti, merited a rare grant of “humanitarian asylum” (asylum based on past persecution alone) because of the severity of the harm she endured.
Maria Rodriguez ’15 and Meisi Liu ’14 won a grant of asylum in January 2014 for a young man from The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, who, despite a mobility impairment from childhood polio, would travel from village to village to organize people in support of democratic reforms. He was jailed many times by the country’s military dictatorship, subjected to beatings and electric shocks, and buried up to his chest in the ground and forced to hold heavy weights over his head. A USCIS asylum officer was convinced by the client’s detailed testimony and the extensive corroborating evidence that Meisi and Maria presented, including witness statements, medical documentation of physical and psychological scars from torture, and reports on rampant human rights violations in The Gambia
In April 2014, Daniel Dauplaise ’14 and Valerie Letendre ’14 won asylum grants for a client, his wife and their four children, who gave up a comfortable life in the Middle East to seek safety in the U.S. The students persuaded an asylum officer that their client, an ex-army officer, faced imminent arrest in torture in his home country because of his activism in a group organizing demonstrations against government corruption.
Advocacy by Conor Duffy ’13 and Holadem Koffigoh ’14 resulted in a grant of asylum for a young woman from Iraq who had been placed on a death list by fundamentalist militias because of newspaper columns she wrote advocating women’s rights and a secular state. After coming to the U.S. on a scholarship, she converted to Christianity, compounding the risks she would face if she returned to Iraq.
Hendrik deBoer ’13 and Greg Bennici ’13 successfully advocated for a client from Burundi at a hearing held at the DHS Asylum Office in Boston. Their client was a recruiter and activist for an opposition party who was twice imprisoned for his political activities and then abducted, interrogated and tortured by the ruling party’s youth militia.
In December 2012, Christina Canales ’13 and Leah Rubega ’13 won an asylum grant for a young man from Jamaica. Their 19-year old client had tried to hide his sexual orientation, but was perceived by his family, teachers, and schoolmates as effeminate and subjected from an early age to constant ridicule, verbal abuse, violence, and threats.
A young transgender client from Honduras who left to escape abuse inflicted by her family is being represented by Rosendo Garza ’15 and Kyle Raleigh ’15. While preparing their client’s asylum application, Kyle and Rosendo learned that their client had already been ordered deported by an immigration court in Texas. They filed an extensive motion seeking to have the case reopened, both because their client never received notice of her original removal hearing, and because changed circumstances relating to the client’s transgender status and new threats she faces in Honduras warrant giving her the opportunity to apply for asylum. The court granted the motion, and the asylum case is now going forward.
Two complex and hard-fought cases on behalf of Jamaican clients are ongoing. The clients are inmates in Connecticut state prisons, and their criminal offenses make them ineligible for asylum. They are, however, eligible for relief from removal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture if they can establish a likelihood of torture, with government acquiescence, in their home country. In a three-day trial held in the spring of 2013, Matteo Leggett ’13 and Jeffrey Fletcher ’13 presented detailed testimony from their client about the repeated violent attacks he endured in several different towns in Jamaica after people discovered he was gay, including a brutal anal rape with a broomstick. The client’s testimony was supported by medical and psychological reports and extensive evidence about rampant violent homophobia in Jamaica that is condoned by government officials. The immigration judge denied relief and an appeal is pending.
Alexa Millinger ’14 and Will Benet ’14 handled another hard-fought, multi-day trial in the spring of 2014 on behalf of a long-time U.S. permanent resident from Jamaica who has received death threats from people in Jamaica because he is gay. He also has been threatened by a relative in Jamaica who sexually abused him as a child and now wants to kill him because he has spoken out about the abuse. Will and Alexa presented testimony from four expert witnesses as well as their client, together with human rights reports and press accounts showing that Jamaica remains one of the world’s most homophobic countries. In July 2014, the immigration judge issued a decision that found our client credible, but nonetheless concluded that the evidence relating to the current situation in Jamaica does not show that a person in his situation is likely to be tortured or that the Jamaican government would acquiesce in his torture. An appeal has been filed with the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Rampant violence from gangs and drug cartels that have become de facto governments in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has forced tens of thousands of people, many of them unaccompanied children, to seek safety in the United States. Court and agency decisions concerning gang-related claims for asylum have been generally unfavorable, but effective legal advocacy can help to make the case that many in this new wave of refugees do meet the legal criteria for asylum. The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has, in the past several years, taken on many of these cases.
Joshua Fay ’15 and Deven Sharma ’14 handled a hard-fought, three-day trial in the Hartford Immigration Court for a young man who ran a small business in Guatemala. He was brutally attacked by members of the notorious Mara-18 gang after he refused to pay them extortion money. Because he filed a police report after the attack, the gang threatened him with death. When he fled to the U.S., the gang sent an ultimatum: “Return to Guatemala or we will kill your family.” His wife and young children also had to flee. At the hearing, Deven and Josh presented moving testimony from their client, medical evidence, and testimony from an eminent expert on Central American gangs. They argued that in the social context of Guatemala, seeking redress from the authorities is a form of political expression, and that those filing police reports constitute a “particular social group” who face persecution that the country’s government is powerless to prevent. A decision in the case is pending.
In the spring of 2013, Sean Acevedo ’13 and Ling Liu ’13 represented a 9-year old girl and 11-year old boy from El Salvador and their mother at the Asylum Office in Newark, New Jersey. (In December 2012, they were prepared to try the case in the Hartford Immigration Court, but on the eve of trial the government agreed to terminate the children’s removal proceedings so that the case could be heard in the more informal setting of the Asylum Office.) The family’s trouble began when the children’s older brother refused recruitment into a gang and was killed. Not content with that crime, the gang threatened the entire family with death, held a knife to one child’s throat, molested the other, and raped the mother. The case remains under review and a decision has not yet been issued.
In December 2013, Andrei Tarutin ’14 and Matthew Ringland ’15 represented a 14-year old Honduran boy who fled to join relatives in Connecticut after being threatened with death by a Honduran family that sought revenge after our client’s father killed a member of that family in self-defense. Persecution based on family membership can be a basis for asylum. The immigration judge denied asylum, finding that our client had not established a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Andrei, after graduating from law school in January 2014, continued his work on the case by writing a persuasive brief to the Board of Immigration Appeals arguing both that our client was denied the right to have his case first heard by the U.S. Asylum Office (as unaccompanied minor children do under a 2008 statute) and that the immigration court erred in denying asylum.
The remarkable stories of the some of the cases handled by the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic in previous years are told below.
Protecting People Struggling for Freedom and Democracy
In December 2011, at a hearing held in the Hartford Immigration Court, Janie Crocco ’12 and Susan Masters ’12 won a grant of asylum for a former government official from Africa who was detained and brutally tortured after he blew the whistle on government corruption.
Clinic students advocated successfully for two clients imprisoned and tortured in Syria because of their support for democratic reforms. In January 2012, Laura Mangini ’12 and Yaron Eisenberg ’12 won a grant of asylum from the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office for their client, a businessman who put his life at risk by organizing and participating in peaceful protests against the Assad government. After being detained and brutally beaten, he fled the country upon learning he was about to be arrested again. In April 2012, Evan Buchberger ’12 and Yifei He ’13 won asylum for another Syrian client, who was threatened, detained and tortured because he helped people file complaints seeking redress for their abuse by Syrian security forces.
A Gay Man Facing Torture in Jamaica
In December 2011, Michael King ’12 and Julie Lelek ’12 conducted a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court for a long-time U.S. permanent resident who faced removal to Jamaica because of a criminal conviction. Throughout his childhood in Jamaica, he was the victim of physical and sexual abuse. After he came out as gay, he received death threats from relatives still in Jamaica, including one who was a police officer. At the hearing, Julie and Mike presented moving testimony from their client, testifying via video from the prison, and powerful supporting testimony from an expert witness who described pervasive anti-gay violence in Jamaican society, fueled by laws that outlaw “buggery.” The immigration judge issued a decision granting our client relief from removal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Threatened with Death for Changing Religions
In April 2012, at a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court, Keegan Drenosky ’12 and Jan (Betsy) Walters ’12 represented a Christian woman forced to flee Pakistan after she received an escalating series of death threats from religious extremists who had learned that she had changed the officially-listed religion on her passport from Islam to Christianity. After numerous warnings that she must return to Islam or face death, a final letter declared that time for repentance had passed, her punishment was ordered and “the sword is ready.” In presenting the case, Keegan and Betsy built on a strong record created by Jessica Feldman ’11 and Katie Yates ’11, who had represented the client in earlier proceedings in the Asylum Office.
Refuge for Victims of Gender-Based Violence
Nora Grais-Clements ’12 and Claudia Morgan ’13 won a grant of asylum in the Hartford Immigration Court for a woman from Honduras who suffered years of physical and sexual violence at the hands of abusive men. The physical and psychological consequences of the abuse made it extremely hard for their client to tell her story, and it took tremendous work by the students to piece together a coherent account of years of horrific abuse. They used several expert witnesses, including a Honduran legal expert who testified by telephone from abroad, to explain why their client could not escape from the men who abused her and could not expect any help from the authorities due to police and judicial indifference to gender-based violence.
In February 2012, the Asylum Office issued a favorable decision in a factually and legally complex case handled by Miriam Godfrey ’12 and Aaron Igdalsky ’12. They represented a young Central American woman whose stepfather started sexually abusing her when she was seven years old. To escape him, she fled to the U.S. as a teenager, and was too traumatized and afraid to file for asylum until several more years had passed. Asylum based on child abuse is an uncharted area, and to obtain a grant of asylum Aaron and Miriam had to convince the Asylum Office to broadly interpret the asylum statute’s vaguely-defined protection of persons who face persecution based on “membership in a particular social group.”
Targeted by Gangs and Criminal Organizations
In three separate but interrelated cases, each raising its own distinct challenges, Ariel Hansen ’13, Christine Giuliano ’13, Rubaiyat Mahboob ’12, Karen Rabinovici ’12, Walter Menjivar ’12 and Cherie Rosemond ’12 won grants of asylum for three members of a Central American family who fled to the United States after being targeted for death by one of the gangs that operate with impunity in their home country. After a younger sister was raped by a local gang leader and then killed for reporting the crime to the police, the gang sought revenge against the entire family. Court and agency decisions concerning gang-based claims for asylum are highly unfavorable. In order to prevail, the students had to show their clients were being targeted because of their family membership, and not merely because they were potential witnesses who might testify against the gang. The students utilized an expert on Central American gangs to establish that the gang routinely seeks to wipe out the families of those who oppose them in order to punish their enemies and send a message to the community. In addition to gathering extensive corroborating evidence of the underlying events that put the family at risk, the students worked closely with their young and deeply traumatized clients to prepare them for their asylum interviews. The Asylum Office granted all three clients asylum.
Jessica DeLoureiro '13 and Shama Modi '12 won a grant of asylum for a young man who fled his Central American homeland at age 17 to escape deadly threats from a man associated with a criminal organization. When the man tried to recruit our client to sell drugs, he not only refused but actively tried to stop his friends from buying drugs from the man. As a result, he suffered escalating violence, culminating in a machete attack that left a deep scar. When our client attempted to report the incident to the police, they turned him away. He fled the country, taking a dangerous journey through Mexico, where he was kidnapped and beaten, before arriving in the U.S. In a factually and legally challenging case, Jessi and Shama convinced the U.S. Asylum Office that their client’s persecution, when considered in the context of the political and social situation of his home country, could be viewed as being based on his expression of an anti-drug, anti-gang political opinion.
Irene Kim ’12 and James Mortimer ’12 handled a complex trial that stretched over two days in the Hartford Immigration Court on behalf of a client from Haiti who was employed as a chauffeur for a government official involved with organized crime. His boss ordered him to burn down tents in one of the tent cities housing people displaced by the earthquake. Our client refused, because he did not want to take part in human rights violations. When his boss sent a man to kill him, our client fled the country. James and Irene presented testimony from their client and two experts on Haitian politics, one of whom hired an investigator in Haiti who confirmed important aspects of our client’s story. The well-presented testimony and painstakingly-gathered corroborating evidence convinced the immigration judge that our client was telling the truth. The judge, however, denied the claim on legal grounds, concluding that the harm our client faced was based on personal rather than political motives.
Clinic students won two victories in Immigration Court for women who escaped from abusive spouses, and could obtain no protection in their home countries because of police and judicial indifference to gender-based violence. At a December 2010 hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court, Angelina Lachhmann ’11 and Hillary Wasicek ’11 obtained asylum for a Pakistani woman who was the victim of severe domestic violence. And in May 2011, Keegan Drenosky ’12 and Peter Smith ’12, appearing before the same court, won asylum for a South American woman who endured decades of abuse from a man who stalked and beat her even after she obtained a divorce.
Several other cases involved both familial violence and the horrific practice of female genital mutilation (“FGM”). In February 2011, Mia Fioritto Rubin ’11 and Kira Evans ’11 won a grant of asylum for a 22-year-old woman from Guinea. Their client came to the U.S. alone at the age of 13 to escape from a forced marriage (to a man who had previously raped her) and the FGM that her family planned to inflict on her before the wedding. The case was particularly difficult because the client had missed the one-year deadline for filing for asylum by a full eight years. The students convinced the asylum officer that psychological trauma, as well as their client’s young age, explained and excused the late filing.
In a hearing held in the Immigration Court in May 2011, Betsy Walters ’12 and Eleni Alevizos ’12 won asylum for a West African client who had been forced by her family into a marriage as the third wife of a much older man, in order to repay a debt. When she entered his household, he subjected her to constant rape and beatings, and insisted that she, like his other wives, submit to FGM. She escaped, while pregnant, just days before the planned circumcision ceremony.
In April 2011, Yikkan (Kennex) Chan ’11 and Geoffrey Ong ’11 obtained relief from removal in a long-running case on behalf of a client who was forced to undergo FGM as a child in Guinea. At her original removal hearing, held in 2006, the immigration judge ruled against her, finding that she lacked a well-founded fear of persecution because FGM, having already been performed, would not be done to her again. The Clinic appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which rejected that reasoning and required a new hearing. This time, the students convinced the immigration judge that our client’s past persecution, along with her reasonable fears of other forms of gender-related violence that are prevalent in Guinea, such as rape and familial violence, qualified her for relief from removal.
At an April 2011 immigration court hearing, Amara Neng ’11 and Jessica Stein ’11 won a grant of asylum for a client who was brutally beaten and left for dead during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Although changed country conditions meant she would no longer be persecuted in Rwanda based on her ethnicity, the students won a rare grant of "humanitarian asylum" by convincing the immigration judge that their client's past persecution was so horrendous that returning to her homeland would be psychologically devastating for her.
Jeffrey Chase ’11 and Philip Markuszka ’11 won relief from removal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture for an African man who came to the U.S as a refugee in the 1980s, but later committed a criminal offense that led to his imprisonment and threatened deportation. Phil and Jeff met with their client weekly at the prison, and tracked down witnesses from as far away as Sweden. At an immigration court hearing held in May 2011, they proved to the court's satisfaction that their client faces likely torture in his home country because of his longstanding support for groups fighting against its repressive government.
Two children from a country in South Asia obtained asylum with the help of Meghann LaFountain ’11 Christopher Lisi ’11. The mother of the two girls refused to go along with a marriage that her family insisted on, and chose her own husband instead. As a result, she, her husband, and their children endured threats and violent attacks from a member of her family and an extremist group he belongs to. Hearings for the two young clients were held in the Asylum Office in December 2010. After prolonged review by the agency, decisions granting asylum in both cases were issued in August 2011.