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 won grants of asylum or other forms of relief from removal in 87 out of the 95 cases that it has handled to completion. In many of these cases, spouses and children were also beneficiaries of the asylum grant, so the total number of refugees who have been able to secure status in the United States as a result of the Clinic’s work is well over 100.
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, at the Immigrant Day event held at the Connecticut State Capitol on April 23, 2012. The year was also marked by the launch of a highly successful interdisciplinary collaboration with the School of Social Work to enhance the services available to asylum-seekers in Connecticut.
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 in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic since 2002.
Miriam Marton co-teaches the program as the William R. Davis Clinical Teaching Fellow. Miriam, who joined the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic in the summer of 2011, was previously an attorney at the New York office of Skadden Arps, where she handled numerous pro bono asylum cases. Prior to her law career, she was a clinical social worker with a practice that focused on sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.
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.
This is a list of recent case profiles handled by the Asylum Clinic.
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. Susan and Janie elicited compelling testimony from their client and presented evidence from a political scientist, who explained how some seemingly-implausible aspects of our client’s story were actually quite consistent with conditions in our client’s home country. Surprisingly, persecution in retaliation for exposing government corruption does not automatically qualify as persecution on “account of political opinion” within the meaning of the asylum law, and it took a persuasive legal brief and closing argument to convince the judge that the claim met the legal standards for asylum as well as being factually well-founded.
Clinic students won grants of asylum in two cases argued before Asylum Office of the Department of Homeland Security for clients who had been imprisoned and tortured in Syria because they engaged in peaceful protests seeking democratic reform. In January 2012, Laura Mangini ’12 and Yaron Eisenberg ’12 advocated successfully for their client, a businessman who put his life at risk by organizing and participating in protests against the Assad government. He was detained and repeatedly placed in a tire, where he was beaten to the point of unconsciousness until he signed a statement promising not to protest any more. He soon began to protest again, and fled when he learned that Syrian security forces were seeking to arrest him. In April, Evan Buchberger ’12 and Yifei He ’13 advocated successfully 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. In both cases, the students worked with medical and psychological experts to help to prove that their clients were victims of torture, and painstakingly assembled voluminous packages of documentary evidence to corroborate their clients’ accounts.
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 Convention Against Torture. (His criminal conviction made him ineligible for asylum.) The judge described it as a close case, in which the extensive documentation assembled by the students and credible testimony from our client and the expert satisfied the difficult burden of proving that it is more likely than not that our client would face torture in Jamaica, and that the Jamaican government would acquiesce in that torture.
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.” Betsy and Keegan overcame arguments made by the Department of Homeland Security that because the threats were anonymous and never acted upon, they did not afford a basis for asylum. The immigration judge was convinced to grant relief by our client’s testimony about the acute fear and stress she suffered as a result of the threats, and country conditions evidence and expert testimony showing that persons accused of blasphemy or apostasy in Pakistan are at great risk of being killed. 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. Few law students graduate with two trial victories under their belt, but this was the case for both Keegan and Betsy: both had previously participated in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic and won grants of asylum for other clients during the 2010-11 academic year.
Nora Grais-Clements ’12 and Claudia Morgan ’13 won a hard-fought victory in the Hartford Immigration Court, obtaining asylum 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.”
The Clinic won a significant appellate victory on behalf of a domestic violence victim in in Nderere v. Holder, 467 Fed. Appx. 56 (2d Cir. Mar. 20, 2012). Our client is a longtime U.S. permanent resident from Zimbabwe whose father was a vocal political opponent of the Mugabe regime. When she visited her home country a few years ago, the authorities detained and tortured her, accusing her of being an American spy. In this country, she became ensnared in an abusive relationship with a violent drug dealer who forced her to transport drugs for him, threatening to sexually abuse her son if she refused. When she pled guilty to a drug trafficking crime, the judge expressly found that she had acted under coercion and issued a lenient sentence. The conviction, however, landed her in deportation proceedings. At a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court handled by then-Clinic students Dallas Dodge ’09 and Brian Sullivan ’09, the immigration judge agreed that our client was coerced into committing her criminal offense, and found that she is likely to be persecuted if returned to Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, he ruled that her conviction constitutes a “particularly serious crime” that bars her from having her deportation withheld. The Clinic appealed the decision, and Patrick Mott ’11 took the lead in drafting the briefs that were filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The appeals court overturned the agency decision, concluding that “coercion and duress vastly reduces the culpability of a person’s conduct” and therefore must be considered in determining whether a crime was “particularly serious.” The court sent the case back to Board of Immigration Appeals for further review, and in June 2013 our client was granted relief from deportation.
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 then fled the country, taking a dangerous journey through Mexico, where he was kidnapped and beaten, before arriving in the United States to seek asylum. Jessi and Shama assembled a strong package of corroborating evidence, and at the asylum interview, their client gave a compelling account of his harrowing experiences. In a legal brief and closing argument, the students made the case that the persecution he faced, in the context of the current political and social situation of his home country, should be viewed as persecution based on political opinion and his “membership in a particular social group,” two of the grounds for asylum.
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 immigration judge, however, denied the claim on legal grounds, concluding that the harm our client faced was based on personal rather than political motives.
People who are granted asylum can apply for visas to enable their spouse and children to join them in the United States, but the process of obtaining approval, first by the Department of Homeland Security and then at a U.S. consulate abroad, is often tortuous and requires sustained advocacy. The Asylum Clinic’s social work intern, Rio Comanduran (School of Social Work ’13), and undergraduate human rights intern, Monika Lazauskas (UConn Class of 2013) put in countless hours to make it possible for five children of a woman from Congo who was forced to leave her family behind when she fled to save her own life in 2010, to join their mother in the United States. The challenges included demands from the embassy for DNA tests and legal papers to prove parentage, the embassy’s subsequent loss of the DNA test results, and finally, once visas were approved, finding a way for our client, who works in a low-wage job, to afford nearly $10,000 worth of plane tickets. Rio and Monika worked closely with Congressional staff to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles. Once visas were in place, Rio drafted a grant application that secured partial funding for the children’s plane tickets, and engaged in extensive outreach to help raise the rest of the needed funds. (Many alumni of the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic donated generously.) Rio also worked with social service agencies to ensure that the family received all available benefits and services to help them transition successfully to life in the United States. Similarly extensive efforts went into bringing over the wife and children of another client from Syria, a process complicated by the closure of the U.S embassy in that country.
The remarkable stories of the cases handled by the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic during the past few years are told below.
During the 2010-11 academic year, law students in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic had an amazing run of nine consecutive victories in hearings they handled before the U.S. Immigration Court and the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office.
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. Asylum based on domestic violence is a legally-unsettled area, and both teams of students, in addition to eliciting compelling testimony from their clients, had to present extensive legal argument, corroborating evidence and expert testimony to convince the judge to grant relief.
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 made the long, early-morning trip to New Jersey (where the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office is located), for a hearing that achieved an asylum grant for a 22-year-old woman from Guinea. This client had come to the U.S., alone, at the age of 13 to escape from being forced to marry a cousin who had previously raped her, and from the FGM that her family would require her to undergo 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. She and her daughter, born after her arrival in the U.S., can now build a new life in safety.
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 United Nations 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.
In April 2010, Erica Carroll ’10 and Jordan Abbott ’10 handled a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court at which they won a grant of asylum for a family from Haiti. One of their clients had been threatened with death and shot at by supporters of Haiti’s ex-president due to his work as an organizer for an opposing political party. His pregnant wife was beaten so badly by men looking for him that their child has suffered permanent brain damage. The entire family can now live securely and safely as residents of the United States.
In another April 2010 hearing, Ellen Messali ’10 and Tara Nenart ’10 convinced an immigration judge to grant asylum to a woman from Peru who fled from severe domestic violence inflicted by a man who treated her as his property. When she tried to leave the relationship, her abuser followed her to different parts of Peru, and even to Argentina. Asylum eligibility based on domestic violence involves complex and unsettled legal issues, and the case was a challenging one, both factually and legally.
In May 2010, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld and made final a favorable decision issued by an immigration judge after a hearing handled by Jeanne Hayes ’10 and Rubina Dawud ’10. Their client fled the Congo Republic after his house was destroyed by the military during a time of widespread violence against his ethnic group. The case was complicated by the fact that he spent eight years in South Africa before coming to the U.S., and then missed a filing deadline for his asylum application. The students successfully argued that extraordinary circumstances excused the late filing; that their client’s tenuous legal status in South Africa meant that he was never “firmly resettled” there; and that, despite the passage of many years and a change in regime, he still faced a significant risk of persecution in his home country. The judge’s extensive written decision is now being cited as a precedent in other cases. When the Department of Homeland Security appealed the asylum grant, further advocacy by Amber Doucette ’10 helped to ensure that the decision was upheld.
In February 2010, Katayoun Sadeghi ’10 and Vincent Vuffante ’10 won a grant of asylum after a hearing at the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office for their client, a young man who was threatened and pursued by armed religious fundamentalists in his Central Asian homeland because of his volunteer work with an international organization promoting HIV awareness and prevention. They overcame enormous challenges in obtaining witness statements and documents from a country where people have good reason to fear for their safety if they assist an asylum seeker.
Amrita Singh ’10 and Christopher Wasil ’10 successfully argued on behalf of a client from Central Africa at another hearing held in January 2010 in the Asylum Office. Their client was arrested, beaten, sexually abused, and detained under life-threatening conditions after she and her pastor husband were accused of criticizing the government during prayer meetings. Rita and Chris gained their traumatized client’s trust, developed the facts in detail, and tactfully probed aspects of the story that if insufficiently explained might have been viewed as implausible or inconsistent. After the asylum grant, the Clinic continued to represent our client to obtain visas that allowed her children, who she was forced to leave behind in her home country, to join her in the United States.
Michelle Iandoli ’09 and Timothy Gondek ’09 handled two separate hearings on behalf of their client, a woman from South America who was severely beaten and faced death threats after she came out as a lesbian, and could not get any protection from the authorities in her country. After an asylum officer rejected the claim at an initial hearing, they took the case to trial in the Immigration Court, where, at a May 2009 hearing, they presented powerful and convincing testimony from their client and a scholar who has studied the treatment of gays and lesbians in their client's country. The immigration judge was persuaded and granted asylum.
Shawn Herrick’09 and Katherine Aldrich ’09 won grants of asylum at an April 2009 hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court for a family from Central America. The case raised a number of cutting-edge legal issues involving domestic violence and asylum for people persecuted because of their family affiliations. Shawn and Katie faced the additional hurdle of convincing the immigration judge that the mental trauma their clients had suffered excused them from filing their asylum applications within the statutory one-year deadline. After a lengthy hearing, they prevailed in what the judge described as a "close case." Their clients, a mother and her two teenage children, are now building a new life in the U.S. Another daughter, also with the help of Clinic students, won an asylum grant in a separate proceeding in the fall of 2008. Work on these cases spanned several semesters, and Alyssa Torres ’08, Daniel Perez ’08, Robert Reed ’08 and Elda Sinani LL.M. ’08 all made vital contributions in the earlier stages.
In the spring of 2009, Sonya Geiger ’10 and Gary Murphy ’10 convinced the Department of Homeland Security to grant asylum to a young man from Nigeria. His mother was murdered because of her activity as a political dissident, and the killers left behind a death threat aimed at the entire family. The client, whose leg had been amputated following an unrelated accident, was in the United States at the time, receiving medical treatment not available in his home country. Sonya and Gary presented convincing evidence that their client’s life continued to be threatened by the men who had killed his mother, and that he would face likely persecution because of his physical disability.
In another spring 2009 Asylum Office hearing, Sara Nadim ’10 and Lindsay Corliss ’10 won a grant of asylum for a West African woman who fled from escalating violence inflicted by her husband and his family because of her refusal to undergo female genital mutilation. Sara and Lindsay tackled another case the next fall, writing a persuasive appeal brief for a South American woman who was stalked in three counties by her controlling and abusive husband. They built on the earlier work of Adam Dobson ’10 and Joanne Cossitt ’09, who had skillfully tried the case in the Hartford Immigration Court in the spring of 2009. The immigration judge found their client credible but decided that she was legally ineligible for asylum. While the appeal was pending, the client was granted permanent resident status in the United States based on an application filed by a U.S. citizen relative.
In December of 2008, in the Hartford Immigration Court, Ashley Turner ’09 and Changmo Kim ’10 won a grant of asylum for a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who saw her father killed by government soldiers, and then was herself beaten, raped and left for dead. In April 2009, Ashley gave an engaging and inspirational presentation about the case to students taking an international relations class at Hartford Public High School's Law and Government Academy.
In a January 2009 Asylum Office hearing, Edwin Colon ’09 and Jonathan Gottesman ’09 won a grant of asylum for an 18 year-old girl from West Africa who fled her homeland after enduring beatings and sexual assault from government soldiers seeking her father, a political dissident. After the hearing, their client expressed her feelings in a letter:
"I was wondering how life would be in the new place, a life with no mother, no brother, no father, not even a cousin. I came and met people who did their best and gave their best to show me the way to safety and hope. You cry when I cry, you laugh when I laugh. During all this process, you cared and worried about me. You struggled to make me happy; you took your time and worked hard to protect me and make me safe in this country. I didn't feel like I was with a lawyer, but with a brother. I can now get a job, and even go to college and study hard like you guys. I thank you a thousand times. I am so happy. I can never forget about what you guys have done for me."
In another January 2009 hearing, Jonathan Burby ’09 and John Kim ’09 persuaded the Asylum Office to grant asylum to a young man from a South Asian country. Their client had been sent to the United States as a young teenager, following the murder of his father, a police officer investigating terrorist activity. The students presented detailed evidence of related attacks and threats against his family to show that their client remained at risk.
A Central American Family's Long Struggle for Safety
On May 8, 2008, in the Hartford Immigration Court, two Clinic law students, Kirstin Ramsay '08 and Anthony Goodman '08, won asylum for a woman from Guatemala. She fled to the United States more than a decade ago to escape severe abuse from her husband. Even when her husband tried to kill her with a machete, the police refused to get involved in this "domestic matter." Her youngest son remained behind in Guatemala, cared for by relatives. When her son reached early adolescence, one of the powerful criminal gangs that terrorize Central American societies, tried to recruit him into their ranks. He refused to join because he believed that their murderous activities were wrong. The gang subjected him to a barrage of beatings and abuse, and made oral and written death threats against his entire family. His mother arranged for him to flee Guatemala in 2005. He was caught at the U.S. border, and both he and his mother were placed in removal proceedings.
The evidence and arguments that Anthony and Kirstin presented at our client's removal hearing, including a moving direct examination of our client, a legal brief, affidavits from witnesses, and the report of a country conditions expert, convinced the immigration judge that the gender-based persecution that our client had suffered in the past, combined with the current risk of retaliation from the gang, made her eligible for asylum. The law is unsettled in this area, and grants of asylum in similar circumstances have been rare.
This victory was the culmination of a long legal struggle, involving tenacious advocacy by three teams of Asylum Clinic students over three years. In 2005, when our client's son was apprehended at the border, she learned that she had already been ordered deported by an immigration court in Los Angeles. When she had first arrived in the U.S. in 1994, fleeing from her husband's violence, she had applied for asylum, but never received notice of her hearing. In the spring and fall of 2006, Kenndra Leary-Poole '06 and Natalie Braswell '07 began to work on building evidence in support of the son's case for asylum, while filing a motion with the Los Angeles Immigration Court to overturn the mother's removal order. They obtained a ruling reopening the mother's case and transferring it to Hartford for a new hearing on her asylum claim. In the fall of 2006, another Clinic team, Lila McKinley '08 and Amarilis Carrion '08, represented the son at his hearing in immigration court. They presented a strong case and persuaded the judge that the boy's account was truthful, and that the threat he faced was real. The immigration judge, however, concluded as a legal matter that persecution for refusing to join a gang cannot serve as a basis for granting asylum. The students filed an appeal brief with the Board of Immigration Appeals. While that appeal was pending, the mother's asylum claim was granted by the immigration court, and her children were able to derive asylum status from her. As a result, the entire family has won the right to remain in the United States.
Making New Law That Safeguards the Rights of Refugees
On August 31, 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an important precedent decision in one of the Clinic's cases. (Vumi v. Gonzales, 502 F.2d 150.) This frequently-cited decision makes it easier for people wrongly accused of being involved attempts to overthrow oppressive governments to obtain asylum in the United States. The case, argued in the appeals court by Professor Jon Bauer, arose from the Board of Immigration Appeals' denial of asylum to one of the Clinic's clients, a woman who was imprisoned and brutally tortured by the Congolese military because her husband was suspected of having been involved in the assassination of the country's dictator. While being tortured, she was repeatedly pressed for information about her husband's whereabouts and accused of having knowledge about the assassination plot. Corey Richter '05 and Jasmina Zecovic '05, as students in the Asylum Clinic, tried the case before the Hartford Immigration Court. The testimony and corroborating evidence they presented convinced the judge of the truthfulness of our client's story. Nonetheless, the immigration judge and the agency's appeal board found our client ineligible for asylum, reasoning that the military had a legitimate investigatory purpose in questioning her (since they were trying to locate a suspect in the head of state's murder), and therefore were not engaging in political persecution.
The Court of Appeals, in a strongly written decision, disagreed. It held that in countries that do not allow for peaceful political change, persecution for suspected involvement in an attempt to overthrow the government must be considered a form of political persecution. The court also held that when a government targets a person simply because he or she is a family member of someone the regime is seeking to harm, this may constitute persecution based on "membership in a particular social group," one of the statutory grounds for granting asylum. The case was sent back to the Board of Immigration Appeals for further consideration. After the Clinic filed a new legal brief with the agency, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it no longer opposed a grant of asylum, and in March 2008 the case was concluded in our client's favor.
Protecting Political Dissidents from Persecution
At a hearing held in the Hartford Immigration Court in February 2008, Olotokunbo Green '08 and Melissa Hurst '08 won a grant of asylum for their client, a politician who ran for local office in his African homeland as a candidate of the ruling party, but was imprisoned and beaten by the government after he lost the election and made public statements blaming his defeat on the party's failure to meet the people's needs.
Another client was granted asylum by the Department of Homeland Security's Asylum Office, after a hearing at which she was represented by Asylum Clinic students Philip Torrey '08 and Andrew Sterling '08, who presented evidence that persuaded an asylum officer that our client had been imprisoned, tortured and raped by the Congolese military after she registered voters at an opposition political rally.
Olga Konferowicz '08 and Robert Ziemiecki '09 also made the long trip to the Asylum Office (located in Lyndhurst, New Jersey) for a hearing on behalf of a West African woman who suffers from serious physical disabilities as a result of an attack against her by government agents, who ran her down with a motorcycle because of her work for a dissident newspaper. Their client was granted asylum.
In all of these cases, highly effective presentations of client testimony, extensive and well-organized supporting documentary evidence, reports that the students secured from medical and country conditions experts, and cogent legal arguments helped to secure the favorable outcome. Rasheena Ford-Bey '08 and Karem Dioces '08 provided equally skillful and zealous representation at a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court for a client who was targeted in her central African country because of her familial relationship to a government opponent, but an immigration judge rejected the claim.
In June 2008, an immigration judge granted asylum to a former civics teacher from Haiti. In 2002, after our client denounced corruption in the regime of then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an armed mob of Aristide supporters attacked his home and shot at him as he fled. At his original hearing, held in January 2005, the immigration court denied him asylum, rejecting his testimony as inconsistent and implausible, but that decision was overturned after a series of appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals and then the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. (As students in the Asylum Clinic, Elissa Torto '05, Jason Marshall '05, Shannon Bratt '06, and Hinna Mushtaque '06 handled the hearing and appeal.) The appeal board ultimately ruled that inconsistencies in the client's testimony were minor and adequately explained, and did not warrant an adverse credibility finding. When the case went back to the immigration judge, the main issue was whether our client still has a well-founded fear of being persecuted in Haiti, despite the fact that Aristide is no longer in power. Testimony from a political scientist helped to convince the court that armed pro-Aristide elements remain active in Haiti and would still have the capacity and inclination to punish our client. After our client was granted asylum, the Clinic helped him obtain visas that allowed his children to join him in the United States.