Archive: Case Profiles, 2007-08
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.