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  April 26, 2004

Students In New Law Clinic
Help Win Asylum For Clients

Individuals seeking asylum in the United States often have a tough job convincing skeptical immigration officials they are genuine victims of persecution. But the odds of success are significantly improved for asylum applicants represented by law students participating in the School of Law's Asylum and Human Rights Clinic.

Image: Cara Cutler and Mary-Kate Smith

Cara Cutler, left, and Mary-Kate Smith, students in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, earlier this month won asylum for a client from Guinea, capping a string of six consecutive victories for clinic clients.

Photo by David Bauman

During the four semesters of the Clinic's operation, law students and faculty have provided representation in 19 asylum hearings. They won grants of asylum in 65 percent of these cases, a success rate two-and-a-half times the national average of about 25 percent. According to U.S. government statistics, 48,656 asylum applications were filed in 2003, but only 12,176 were granted.

Last week, capping a string of six consecutive victories since December, Clinic students won asylum for a 32-year-old African woman who endured 11 years of severe physical, sexual, and psychologica l abuse by her husband, to whom she had been forcibly married by her family. "The case was particularly challenging because the law is unclear as to whether domestic violence can qualify as persecution within the meaning of asylum laws," say clinical law professors Jon Bauer and Elizabeth McCormick, who together teach the program.

"The Clinic certainly doesn't win all its cases," they say, "but success is rewarding and worth celebrating when it comes." Bauer adds that the Clinic's success rate "is especially remarkable when you consider that we don't pre-screen cases to pick clear winners."

The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic is a one-semester, six-credit law course, in which students represent clients who have fled from persecution. Under U.S. and international law, individuals who can prove that they have been persecuted, or have a well-founded fear of persecution, based on their political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, are eligible for asylum. The Clinic's clients so far have included refugees from Burundi, Belarus, Cameroon, Columbia, Congo, Cote D'Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Peru, Somalia, Togo, Uzbekistan, and Zambia.

Just 12 law students per semester participate in the program. They work closely with clients who have recently arrived in the United States, often don't speak English, and whose very lives may depend on the students' effective advocacy.

"It's intense," said Bauer, "and the students do an amazing amount of work. With the stakes so high, students are incredibly motivated."

Students, working on cases in teams of two supervised by Bauer or McCormick, have the primary responsibility for representing clients in all aspects of the asylum process.

This includes interviewing and counseling clients, investigating the facts supporting their claims, researching human rights conditions in their home country, gathering supporting documentation, interviewing witnesses and helping prepare detailed affidavits, researching and writing legal briefs, and, finally, representing the client in asylum interviews in the Asylum Office of the Department of Homeland Security and at hearings before federal immigration judges.

Clinic students also participate in weekly seminars that focus on the substantive and procedural law relevant to asylum cases, the lawyering skills that students will use in their casework, and a variety of legal, tactical, and ethical issues arising in the actual cases.

Most asylum cases are adjudicated within six months after the application is filed, thus allowing student teams, over the course of one or two semesters, to represent their clients from the application through the asylum interview or hearing in immigration court.

The cases involve hours of work in addition to class time, says Bauer. This work involves researching human rights reports, developing corroborating evidence to show that a client has been persecuted, locating and interviewing witnesses, and preparing a critically important affidavit from the client outlining the factual and legal bases for the client's claim.

These efforts can take interesting turns, Bauer says, recollecting one client who fled from a small coastal village in Somalia when he was 13 years old, after his family was attacked by a rival clan's militia. "He spent the next eight years at a refugee camp in Kenya before he made it to the U.S., and he had no documentatio n to show that he originally was from Somalia," says Bauer. "But our student team found an expert linguist who interviewed our client and confirmed that he spoke a dialect of Swahili unique to that coastal area of Somalia."

In the case won last week, third-year law students Cara Cutler and Mary Kate Smith estimated they spent more than 1,400 hours since last October investigating and preparing their case. They say the circumstances of their client's case warranted intensive efforts. Forcibly married to her husband at age 20, the woman repeatedly attempted to flee her husband's abuse, but each time she was forced by members of her extended family to return to him. The government of Guinea offers no protection to victims of domestic violence. With a friend's help, she finally escaped to the United States last August. She tried to settle in Canada, but was apprehended at the border by U.S. immigration officials and detained.

Shortly after the Clinic became involved with her case, Cutler and Smith managed to persuade an immigration judge to release her from custody, after they found a domestic violence shelter willing to house her until her asylum hearing. Because their client had no money for food and no clothes other than the light summer clothing she arrived in, they organized a food and clothing drive for her at the law school.

Smith acknowledges that this personal involvement with their client raised the emotional stakes in the outcome. "It becomes an awesome responsibility," she says, "because you have someone's life in your hands. If we lost she would have been sent back to a terrible situation. It puts a lot of pressure on you."