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INRC Wins Asylum for Woman Fleeing Domestic Violence

December 28, 2018

By Katherine Dennis, Andrea Natalie, and Andrea Velasquez

The Immigrant and Non-Citizens Rights Clinic (INRC) is delighted to share the asylum victory of Ms. J, a longtime client and survivor of domestic violence. She won her case before the New York City Immigration Court and is now able to safely remain in the United States with her two young sons; she also has a path to citizenship.

 

This case was especially challenging due to the current administration’s attempts to weaken asylum claims from domestic violence survivors. Just last summer, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions upended the United State’s commitment to ending gender-based violence.

INRC students on their way to submit a brief

Sessions certified Matter of A-B- where he reversed a grant of asylum to a Salvadoran woman who fled horrific sexual, emotional, and physical violence at the hands of her then-husband. In the course of this reversal, Sessions made sweeping and inherently flawed statements asserting persecution by private actors would not be covered under asylum law. He deliberately used harmful language that is non-binding, but nonetheless confusing, to make winning asylum more difficult for those fleeing gang violence and domestic violence – people like our client Ms. J. In December of 2018, a federal judge recognized the flawed nature of Sessions’ attempt to broadly disqualify entire categories of immigrants from asylum protections and permanently blocked the policy as applied to immigrants requesting asylum at the border for being contrary to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Refugee Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

We made the case and successfully argued that Ms. J had been persecuted by her former partner because of her political beliefs in gender equality and her resistance to his machista attitudes—evinced by her desire to pursue education, desire for equal roles in their household, and her eventual decision to flee the marriage and country of her birth. While reading her oral decision granting asylum, the Immigration Judge acknowledged the political nature of our client’s beliefs and the many acts of resistance she undertook in her abusive relationship.

 

PREPARING THE CASE

Upon meeting our client, our initial goal was to gain her trust.  We were under significant time constraints to prepare our filing, but managed, in less than three weeks, to more than double the size of our initial filing. We worked with Ms. J to add more details and facts to her affidavit and submitted more documents evincing the country conditions that enabled this abuse to continue with impunity. Cultural competency was also fundamental in this process. We really connected with our client because we were a team of women who were close to her in age. She felt comfortable speaking to us and opening up to us in her native language, Spanish, and that is how we also gained the trust of her family members in Honduras. Our success was possible because we were able to gain our client’s trust, which led her to open up.

At times, we struggled with maintaining the client-centered approach to representation that we strive to achieve when lawyering. Because of the administration’s attempts to change fundamental asylum law a few months before Ms. J’s hearing, we needed to strengthen our legal arguments and add an additional ground for persecution: political opinion. By shifting the focus of the legal argument, together with our client, we worked to reshape her narrative. We had many open conversations about our legal arguments, strategies, etc., and we believe that this created trust, despite our time limitations and the shadow of potential bad legal precedent.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

While we are so happy for our client, we also want to add a critical perspective on our asylum win and what it adds to the complex narrative and history of immigration law.  Ms. J has a sympathetic story that, we fear, perpetuates the narrative of who is a ‘good’ immigrant versus a ‘bad’ immigrant. Our client suffered horrible abuse and had no choice other than to flee Honduras for her and her son’s life. This generally fits a ‘good’ immigrant story – a young mother with no criminal history protecting her and her children’s lives, and now they are safe here in Queens. She fled a country in which the U.S. has continually exerted its power. The U.S. has a role in creating the conditions from which many people seek asylum—yet in the courtroom we had to present a narrative which singularly painted this small Central American nation as a horrible, deadly place without the complex geo-political landscape and history that is essential to any discussion on this region. Part of making our legal argument necessarily involved furthering this harmful narrative to some degree.

As law students and as a clinic, we are committed to supporting stability and legal status for all immigrants, and consider daily how to create success stories for all immigrants – including those with criminal convictions, those subject to discriminatory policing policies, and/or those who have been over-broadly labeled as threats by the security state. Our classmates represent many clients in the aforementioned categories and we acknowledge that their hard work may not receive any accolades or acknowledgement in a blog post. We were in the rare situation in this era to experience a win in immigration court, but we underscore our admiration for our INRC clients’ and colleagues’ resilience and creativity in the face of the reality that they may never see success before any government judge or adjudicator due to the U.S. government’s characterizations of their clients as criminals, gang members or security threats.

Another takeaway of this legal journey is to be fully prepared and know your filing from beginning to end. Practice is key to feeling comfortable with your work and arguments on the day of the hearing. Most importantly, having constant communication with your client and addressing her questions are vital to providing a client-centered approach to your case and gaining your client’s trust.

 

ABOUT THE INRC TEAM

Our team consisted of three INRC students: Andrea Natalie, Katherine Dennis, and Andrea Velasquez; our supervising Professor, Nermeen Arastu; and our INRC classmates and Professors Kassem and Peleg who each contributed significantly to this win. Classmates helped strategize the legal arguments and prepare for the hearing, gave us feedback and advice on our direct examination questions and closing argument, and helped prepare our client for cross-examination.

The design of the clinic enables the students to be very involved in the cases. We were the student attorneys on the case and led the entire hearing. While our professors provided us extensive guidance and support, they supported us in taking the lead. This method prepared us to be effective and capable future immigration attorneys and advocates. The experience has truly increased our confidence about our ability to graduate from CUNY School of Law and become great lawyers and advocates.

We want to express our profound gratitude to our amazing supervising attorney, Professor Nermeen Arastu, for her support during the preparation of the filing and during the hearing. She was there with us, advising us, and helping us, including at 11 p.m. two days before the hearing. When we were nervous, she listened to us, laughed with us, and pumped us up when we really needed it. Professor Arastu provided us with support the day of the hearing that helped us excel. None of this would have been possible without her guidance and advice.

 

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