Asylum and Human Rights Clinic student giving a speech at a podium.
Asylum & Human Rights Clinic

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.

Achievements

Since its founding in 2002, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has handled 121 asylum cases to completion.  In 112 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 well into the hundreds.  For descriptions of cases recently handled by Clinic students, click here.

The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic’s litigation of cutting-edge issues has resulted in precedents that have helped to advance the rights of asylum seekers nationwide.  A 2015 Immigration Court decision issued in one of the Clinic’s cases was among the first in the country to recognize that individuals who face violent retaliation for resisting the authority exercised by gangs in Central America are expressing a political opinion and are therefore eligible for asylum.  Click here to read about the decision.   In another Clinic case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Second Circuit issued a frequently-cited precedent holding that persons targeted because of their family affiliations or suspected ties to persons seeking a dictatorial government’s overthrow may qualify for asylum. 

Over the past several years, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has developed innovative interdisciplinary collaborations with the UConn School of Social Work and UConn Health Center that engage students and faculty from multiple disciplines in collaborative work on behalf of refugees; launched the Immigration Detention Service Project, a spring break service trip that provides desperately-needed pro bono assistance to detained asylum-seekers; and engaged in extensive outreach and contributed to scholarly and public discourse on refugees, immigration, and human rights.  The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic is a past recipient of the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition’s Myra M. Oliver Award for exceptional service to Connecticut’s immigrant communities.

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.

Over 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 positions with the U.S. Justice Department, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, public interest law jobs, positions in large and small law firms, and judicial clerkships.

Clinic Faculty

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, mediation, and immigration. He has been teaching the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic since 2002.  In 2015, he received the Connecticut Bar Association’s Tapping Reeve Legal Educator Award.

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.

Asylum for People Persecuted for their Political Beliefs

Asylum is often referred to as “political asylum,” and this country has a long tradition of welcoming those who face persecution because of their struggles for democracy and equality.  Many of the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic’s recent cases were filed on behalf of clients who suffered persecution due to their political beliefs, associations, or activities:

Hannah Tenison ’16 and Jaime Welsh ’15 convinced the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office to grant asylum to M—, a woman from a central African country.  M— courageously spoke at a Women’s Day rally about her experiences as a rape victim.  The government’s security forces viewed the speech as an indictment of government inaction in the face of widespread rape.  Two days later, M— was arrested and taken to prison.  Interrogators accused her of inciting the crowd against the government and told her that she would be killed unless she provided the names of co-conspirators.  After five terrifying days, M—’s family was able to bribe a guard to allow her to escape.  She spent two months in hiding before she was able to flee the country.  Despite extensive corroborating evidence, the Asylum Officer who conducted the hearing initially denied the application, finding that certain aspects of M—’s testimony were inconsistent with country conditions information.  However, when the Clinic requested reconsideration, pointing out that our client had never been confronted with or given an opportunity to explain the alleged “inconsistencies,” the Asylum Office took the rare step of granting a re-hearing.  All of the Asylum Officer’s concerns were assuaged at the new hearing, and M— was granted asylum.

On December 22, 2015, Kathleen Campbell ’16 and Benjamin Haldeman ’16 conducted a trial in the Hartford Immigration Court that ended with an asylum grant for L—, a 19-year old from Ecuador.  While employed as a poll worker during legislative elections, L— saw political operatives burning legitimately-cast ballots and replacing them with votes for the ruling party’s candidates.  When L— reported this corruption to an electoral official and the police, he began to receive threatening phone calls.  He tried moving to another city, but there was threatened by a man who pointed a gun at him and warned that he would be hurt for “speaking out.”  The testimony, evidence, and legal arguments Ben and Kathy presented at the hearing convinced the immigration judge that L—’s whistle-blowing conduct amounted to an expression of political opinion, and that L—would face a high risk of being killed anywhere in Ecuador.  

An engineer from Libya and his family were granted asylum by the DHS Asylum Office in February 2015 as a result of advocacy by Gregory Chase ’16 and Joseph Brown ’16.  Their client, T—, was a university professor in Libya under the Qaddafi regime.  He came to Connecticut in 2010 to study for his Ph.D.  A year after he arrived, Qaddafi fell and the country descended into chaos.  T—’s Facebook page became a popular discussion forum for the Libyan diaspora.  He frequently posted messages criticizing Islamist militias and defending political and religious tolerance.  As a result, terrifying threats were delivered to his parents and siblings in Libya, warning that T—is marked for death if he returns. 

Janelle Medeiros ’17 and Michael Knortz ’17 won an April 2016 asylum grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office for A—, a young woman from Haiti.  During her childhood, A—and her mother were severely abused by her father.  As a result, she developed a strong commitment to women’s and children’s rights.  While studying nursing, A—, together with two university classmates, formed a feminist organization.  They spoke out in meetings and on the radio in favor of gender equality, against domestic violence, and in opposition to the common practice of forcing poor children to work as domestic servants in wealthy households.  Their message threatened entrenched interests, and two of the group’s co-founders were murdered.  Soon after, A— was abducted, sexually abused, and threatened, forcing her to flee to seek safety in the United States. 

Two other cases of Haitian clients facing political persecution are still awaiting final decision.  In December 2014, Patricia Marealle ’16 and Soon Isaac Kim ’16 handled a hearing in the Asylum Office for a Haitian community activist who was threatened and severely beaten because he refused to align his organization with political parties demanding his group’s allegiance.  That same fall, Kate Peccerillo ’16 and Jose Maldonado ’15 prepared and presented the case of a Haitian dentist and community activist who was threatened with death by thugs affiliated with former President Aristide’s Lavalas party because of his vocal opposition to Lavalas.  In both cases, the Asylum Officers indicated that they found the applicants’ accounts of their experiences to be credible and their fears well-founded, but the decisions have been delayed by an agency review process.

Asylum for LGBT People Facing Persecution

Despite recent advances in civil rights protections for LGBT people in the United States and some other countries, in much of the world gay, lesbian, and transgender people face severe persecution and receive no protection from their own governments, which at best are indifferent to anti-gay violence and at worst participate in persecution themselves.  When LGBT people seek haven in the U.S., they may qualify for asylum as members of a “particular social group,” but they face the difficult task of proving their sexual orientation and the truth of their experiences.  In 2015-16, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic won asylum grants for four LBGT clients, and provided representation in another, still-pending case:

At an April 2015 hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court, Kyle Raleigh ’15 and Rosendo Garza ’15 won asylum for M—, a 28 year-old transgender woman from Honduras.     Throughout childhood, M—, who was born seemingly male, faced severe physical and emotional abuse for behaving “like a girl.”  At age 17 M— fled to the U.S and moved in with an aunt in Connecticut.  When the aunt discovered M— dressing in woman’s clothing, she kicked M— out of the house and informed M—’s father, who threatened to kill her should she ever return to Honduras.  Over the next several years, M—came to understand her identity, began living openly as a woman, and started a physical transition.  When she came the Clinic for legal help, Rosendo and Kyle had to overcome multiple hurdles.  They first had to convince an immigration judge in Texas to reopen a prior removal order and have the case transferred to Hartford for a new hearing.  Ordinarily, an asylum application must be filed within a year after entering the U.S., so Kyle and Rosendo also had to prove the existence of changed or extraordinary circumstances to excuse the late filing.  They did this through evidence that M—arrived as a minor, had only gradually and recently come to terms with her gender identity, and could not reasonably have been expected to seek asylum earlier.  Finally, they needed to show that M—’s story of past persecution was true, and that as a transgender woman she would currently face persecution in Honduras, without effective government protection.  Through a compelling direct examination of their client, expert testimony, and legal arguments, they persuaded the immigration judge, who issued an oral decision granting asylum at the conclusion of the hearing.

Dvora Walker ’16 and Hyunjoo Ahn ’15 won a grant of asylum at a January 2015 hearing before the DHS Asylum Office for their client J—, who was persecuted in his African homeland because he is gay.  When family members learned he was in a relationship with a man, community elders summoned J— and demanded that he end the relationship.  Shortly after that, a mob surrounded his home and threatened to burn it down.  J— and his partner moved repeatedly to other cities, but homophobic violence chased them.  When attending a family wedding, J—’s drink was poisoned, making him severely ill.  One day, he and his partner were confronted outside a bar by a vigilante militia that beat them with clubs and whips.  J— went into a severe depression and spent a long time in and out of treatment.  Eventually, he obtained a visa to visit his sister in the U.S.  Once here, he came to the realization that his homosexuality should not be a source of shame, and decided to apply for asylum.  The students worked with country, medical and mental health experts who prepared expert witness reports showing that J—bears physical and emotional scars consistent with his account of persecution, and continues to face severe risks of homophobic violence in his home country.  In multiple preparation sessions, they helped J— overcome his anxieties so that he could testify effectively. 

At another hearing held in the Hartford Immigration Court in May 2015, an immigration judge granted asylum to L—, a 26-year old gay man from Guatemala represented by Clinic students Elena Bel ’15 and James Thompson ’16.  L— had endured years of taunting and abuse as a gay man in Guatemala.  He fled to the U.S. after police officers stormed into a hotel room he was sharing with a male partner.  They beat L—severely and threatened to kill him if he did not “get normal” and “fix” himself.  In court, James and Elena presented an extensive package of supporting evidence, conducted an examination of their client, and made a closing argument.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the opposing attorney for the Department of Homeland Security conceded that a grant of asylum was appropriate, and the immigration judge, after commending the students for a “well-put-together” case, issued an order granting relief. 

In March 2016, Laura Boyle ’17 and Qianli You ’16 won asylum for a gay man from Jamaica after advocating for him at a hearing in the DHS Asylum Office.  In Jamaica, where anti-gay violence is rampant, their client had tried to hide his homosexuality by marrying a woman and having a child.  After being “outed” by a man with whom he was having a relationship, his homosexuality became widely known, and he was harassed in the streets with homophobic slurs, received death threats, and twice was chased by men throwing stones and wooden sticks.  When he went to the police, he was told that they would not investigate threats against a “battyman.”  After coming to the U.S. on a visa to visit family, he received further news of serious death threats, and decided to apply for asylum.

In a case held up due to scheduling backlogs in the U.S. Asylum Office, Jon-Marc LaRue Zitzkat ’15 and Joshua MacDonald ’15 prepared asylum filings for a gay man from El Salvador who faced near-constant abuse growing up in his home country.  He could not go out in public without people taunting, harassing, and assaulting him.  At age 17 he was raped, leaving him HIV-infected.  In 2012, when a close friend who was gay was beaten to death, he fled to the United States.  Once here, he struggled as an undocumented person battling AIDS.  In preparing his asylum application and supporting evidence and arguments, Josh and Jon-Marc had to make the case that extraordinary circumstances excused their client from the usual requirement of filing for asylum within a year after entering the U.S., as well as proving that he continues to face the risk of persecution in his home country due to his homosexuality and medical condition.  Jon-Marc, now a graduate in law practice, is continuing to represent the client pro bono.

Asylum for Gender-Based Forms of Persecution: Domestic Violence, FGM, Forced Abortion

Although the international Refugee Convention and U.S. asylum statute do not list gender as a basis for asylum, legal precedents are rapidly evolving in this area and increasingly recognize that women facing harms such as domestic violence, rape, female genital cutting, and honor killings are not merely the victims of personally-motivated violence, but are eligible for asylum because these practices arise from systemic and governmentally-tolerated persecution.  During 2015-16, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic successfully represented seven clients in gender-related cases: 

In February 2016, Susan Lissitzyn ’17 and Shikha Patel ’17 successfully advocated at  the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office on behalf of a North African client, S—. A successful businesswoman in her home country, S— married a jealous and abusive man who beat her and constantly accused her of infidelity.  He later went to jail for crimes unrelated to his abuse.  When S— obtained a divorce, her ex-husband repeatedly threatened to kill her.  From jail, he ordered his criminal associates to follow, harass, and threaten her.  They cut the brakes on S—’s car, causing a crash that nearly killed her.  S— sought help from the police several times, but they refused to investigate, telling her they would not get involved in a domestic dispute.    At the asylum hearing, Shikha and Susan presented compelling testimony from their client, extensive supporting evidence, and a legal argument that showed that S— is eligible for asylum under the complex and evolving standards for domestic violence claims.

Several Clinic cases involved asylum for women who underwent or faced the imminent threat of female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful and painful practice used to control women’s sexuality.  Even when officially illegal, governments in many countries where FGM is common do little or nothing to prevent it.  In February 2016, Lisa Herrera ’17 and R.J. Hine ’17 successfully represented a West African woman and her five-year-old daughter at a hearing before the Asylum Office.  The mother had not undergone FGM as a child and was strongly opposed to it.  She married a man whose father was a village chief who was strongly committed to maintaining the traditional practice.  When she was five months pregnant, her father-in-law had her abducted to his village, where she was forcibly held down and circumcised with a knife, with no anesthesia.  She was unable to walk for days; ever since, intercourse has been painful for her and childbirth difficult.  When her father-in-law and others in the family started threatening to abduct her daughter for FGM, she, her husband, and their children fled the country and sought asylum in the U.S.  Both mother’s and daughter’s applications were granted. 

At another Asylum Office hearing in February 2016, Tracy Bempong ’16 and Harrison Smith ’17 won asylum for a woman from Gambia, who was twice subjected to FGM, once at age 14 and then again when she was about to enter into an arranged marriage.  In June 2015, Kate Peccerillo ’16 won grants of asylum for two teenage girls from a country in West Africa who were sent by their parents (who, like the girls, were opposed to FGM) to visit their paternal grandparents in Connecticut in order to protect them from repeated and increasingly insistent attempts by a relative to abduct them for forcible FGM.  All of these cases required sensitive interviewing of the clients, close collaboration with medical, mental health and country conditions experts, and legal briefs that navigated complex developments in the case law. 

A woman forced to have an abortion under China’s repressive one-child policy was granted asylum in 2015 after a hearing in the Asylum Office handled by Carolina Guiral ’15, Felicia McGinniss ’15, and LL.M. student Frida Sikaj.  After the birth of her first child, Y— and her husband desperately wanted more children.  But when she became pregnant a second time, family planning officials ordered her to report to a hospital for an abortion.  Aware that others who refused had been dragged away by force, and facing implicit threats of severe sanctions, Y— reluctantly complied.  She fell into a deep depression afterwards.  When she again became pregnant, she and her husband faced social ostracism, job loss, and crippling fines.  They used an offer to study in the U.S. as a means of escape.  Asylum applications based on China’s one-child policy receive particularly close scrutiny from immigration officials because many fraudulent claims have been filed.  The Clinic students handling the case also faced the difficult challenge of proving that the abortion was coerced rather than voluntary.  Utilizing detailed and compelling testimony from their client, country evidence, and expert testimony from a psychological evaluator, the students met their burden, and Y—and her family were granted asylum.

The remarkable stories of the some of the cases handled by the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic in previous years are told below.

Case Profiles: 2012-2014

Helping Central American Children and Families Terrorized by Gang Violence 

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 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 who was brutally attacked by members of the notorious Mara-18 gang after he refused to pay “taxes” to them.  When he filed a police report after the attack, the gang threatened to kill him, his wife and his young children.  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.  The immigration judge agreed, and the client was granted asylum.  Read more about the decision here.

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 children and their mother were all granted asylum.

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 brief to the Board of Immigration Appeals arguing 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 Board granted the appeal.

Securing Refuge for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Abuse

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.  Ruth and Tejal gained their client’s trust to obtain the necessary details and assembled a strong package of supporting evidence.  Based on the written evidence and a legal brief prepared by the students, counsel for the Department of Homeland Security agreed, at the outset of the  hearing in immigration court, to a grant of asylum for our client—a concession rarely made by the government.

Samem Jarbarkhail ’15 and Ivan Tereschenko ’15 won asylum for 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 persuaded the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office that she was persecuted due to both her disability and her gender, and obtained a favorable 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.

Protecting Advocates for Freedom and Democracy

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 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.

Defending LGBT Clients Who Face Persecution

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. 

Clinic students were also involved in two complex, long-running cases on behalf of gay Jamaican residents of Connecticut who became deportable because of criminal offenses.  Their convictions made them ineligible for asylum, but they could apply for relief from removal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.  Alexa Millinger ’14 and Will Benet ’14 handled a hard-fought, multi-day trial in the spring of 2014 on behalf of a long-time U.S. permanent resident  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 to the Board of Immigration Appeals was unsuccessful, and the case is currently pending before the U.S Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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, however, disbelieved his story and denied him relief.  The Board of Immigration Appeals overturned that decision, finding that it was not sufficiently supported by the evidence, and ordered a new hearing.   After further proceedings, the immigration judge again denied relief, and this time the ruling was upheld on appeal.

Case Profiles: 2011-2012

Protecting People Struggling for Freedom and Democracy

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.  

At a hearing held in the Hartford Immigration Court in December 2011, 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.  

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 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. The well-presented testimony and painstakingly-gathered corroborating evidence convinced the immigration judge that our client was telling the truth, but the judge denied the claim on legal grounds, concluding that the harm our client faced was based on personal rather than political motives.  

Case Profiles: 2010-2011

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, and asylum was granted in both cases.

Case Profiles: 2012-2014

Helping Central American Children and Families Terrorized by Gang Violence 

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 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 who was brutally attacked by members of the notorious Mara-18 gang after he refused to pay “taxes” to them.  When he filed a police report after the attack, the gang threatened to kill him, his wife and his young children.  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.  The immigration judge agreed, and the client was granted asylum.  Read more about the decision here.

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 children and their mother were all granted asylum.

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 brief to the Board of Immigration Appeals arguing 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 Board granted the appeal.

Securing Refuge for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Abuse

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.  Ruth and Tejal gained their client’s trust to obtain the necessary details and assembled a strong package of supporting evidence.  Based on the written evidence and a legal brief prepared by the students, counsel for the Department of Homeland Security agreed, at the outset of the  hearing in immigration court, to a grant of asylum for our client—a concession rarely made by the government.

Samem Jarbarkhail ’15 and Ivan Tereschenko ’15 won asylum for 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 persuaded the Department of Homeland Security’s Asylum Office that she was persecuted due to both her disability and her gender, and obtained a favorable 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.

Protecting Advocates for Freedom and Democracy

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 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.

Defending LGBT Clients Who Face Persecution

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. 

Clinic students were also involved in two complex, long-running cases on behalf of gay Jamaican residents of Connecticut who became deportable because of criminal offenses.  Their convictions made them ineligible for asylum, but they could apply for relief from removal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.  Alexa Millinger ’14 and Will Benet ’14 handled a hard-fought, multi-day trial in the spring of 2014 on behalf of a long-time U.S. permanent resident  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 to the Board of Immigration Appeals was unsuccessful, and the case is currently pending before the U.S Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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, however, disbelieved his story and denied him relief.  The Board of Immigration Appeals overturned that decision, finding that it was not sufficiently supported by the evidence, and ordered a new hearing.   After further proceedings, the immigration judge again denied relief, and this time the ruling was upheld on appeal.