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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Thomson ’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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.