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“CU law program helps Guatemalan man stave off deportation”

Ithaca Journal: July 11, 2007
By Topher Sanders

Two students and a professor at Cornell University Law School saved a Guatemalan man from definite deportation and likely torture recently when they successfully argued that the man didn't receive a fair immigration trial.

The 32-year-old Guatemalan man, whose name was not released by the university, asked a California immigration court not to deport him in 2006 because he faced being tortured in his home country. The man, who speaks no English, represented himself in court and was ultimately denied asylum by the court.

In January, the law school's Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Law Clinic took on the appeal, arguing that their client should receive a new trial.

The program's director learned in May that the appeal was successful. "He was denied an adequate hearing and he was really a legitimate torture victim in Guatemala," said Sital Kalantry, co-director of the Cornell clinic. "He and his sister and his family suffered really horrible abuses, and he would have been entitled to stay in this country if the judge would have simply listened to his story."

Their client's father was accused by the Guatemalan government as being a member of a guerilla faction, while the guerilla factions thought he was a government spy, Kalantry said.

His brothers were murdered in 1992 and he and his sister were tortured and raped by military officials.

He and his sister fled Guatemala for the United States and he had been living here for 13 years before he was apprehended by immigration officials.

The Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Law Clinic, a semester long course offered once a year at the law school, took the Guatemalan man's case in January.

The clinic, which was established in 2003, accepts only eight students a year to work on immigration cases.

Law students Heidi Craig and Kristen Echemendia were assigned the Guatemalan man's case.

"One of the highlights of the summer was finding out that our client (won his appeal)," said Craig, who recently graduated. "The clinic experience was very intense because it was so much work but to go through all of that ... this was definitely a great way to have things end."

Craig, Echemendia and Kalantry prepared a 40-page brief and several hundred pages of supporting documents to earn a victory in the appeal.

It is encouraging to not only help a person in need but to also watch her students apply all the legal expertise they are learning in class, Kalantry said.

"It's a rewarding experience for everybody because this is the first time the students actually get to learn to be a lawyer and help somebody who deserves the help and wouldn't otherwise get it," she said. "If it wasn't for our efforts, he would long be departed back to Guatemala."

The Guatemalan man is still being detained in California while he waits for his new hearing to occur in about three months, Kalantry said.

Forty students have worked on 20 cases with the clinic since 2003. About half of those cases have ended in victory for the clinic.