Profiles of Recent Clinic Cases 2011-2012
Protecting People Struggling for Freedom and Democracy
In December 2011, at a hearing held in the Hartford Immigration Court, Janie Crocco ’12 and Susan Masters ’12 won a grant of asylum for a former government official from Africa who was detained and brutally tortured after he blew the whistle on government corruption. 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.
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 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.
Threatened with Death for Changing Religions
In April 2012, at a hearing in the Hartford Immigration Court, Keegan Drenosky ’12 and Jan (Betsy) Walters ’12 represented a Christian woman forced to flee Pakistan after she received an escalating series of death threats from religious extremists who had learned that she had changed the officially-listed religion on her passport from Islam to Christianity. After numerous warnings that she must return to Islam or face death, a final letter declared that time for repentance had passed, her punishment was ordered and “the sword is ready.” 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.
Refuge for Victims of Gender-Based Violence
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 the Board of Immigration Appeals for further review, and the Clinic continues to represent Ms. Nderere in those proceedings.
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.
In another case that awaits a decision from the Asylum Office, Jessica DeLoureiro ’13 and Shama Modi ’12 represented 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.