Seeking asylum in the United States can be a long, arduous process, and many lack legal resources to make their case. Earlier this year, two such asylum seekers, having faced daunting setbacks, achieved a crucial second chance thanks to the work of Cornell's Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic.
Jamie Long '17 and Melvin Wu '17, supervised by clinic director Estelle McKee, represented a man from Somalia. When the respondent was thirteen years old, clan members had killed his family, kidnapped him, and repeatedly beat him. An immigration judge, though finding that the respondent was credible and had suffered past persecution, denied him asylum. The judge concluded that the respondent's fear of future persecution was not well-founded, as the "vast economic opportunities" of Mogadishu would allow him to relocate there, away from the circumstances of the previous attacks.
In their brief, Long and Wu argued that the respondent could not relocate within Somalia to avoid persecution because of ongoing civil strife and attacks by Al-Shabaab. Travel throughout Somalia remains perilous, and the respondent lacked the familial ties necessary to protect him from further clan violence. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) remanded the case and ordered the immigration judge to consider the evidence the students had gathered and submitted on appeal. The respondent now has a trial attorney and is preparing for his new hearing.
"The experience was rewarding, because our client deserved legal assistance, and it was the first time we were able to apply the expertise we developed in the classroom to a real-life situation," say Long and Wu. "It was encouraging to see that we were able to use our skills to have a positive impact in someone's life. We worked hard to achieve a favorable result for our client, and we were thrilled to hear that the case was remanded!"
Meanwhile, Krsna Narayana Avila '17 and Yanet Yuritzy Cordero '17, supervised by Professor Sital Kalantry, represented a client from Benin. For four years after he converted to Christianity from the official state religion of Voudon, the respondent and his family were persecuted by his former Voudon congregation. Congregation members beat him and his wife, sacrificed animals outside his house, threw harmful Voudon-related objects at him, and threatened to kill him. Fearing for his life, the respondent fled to the United States, and his wife and children moved away from their city. The Voudon congregation found his wife, however, and threatened to kill her if the respondent did not return. The respondent's wife died soon afterwards under unexplained circumstances.
The immigration judge in Chicago who heard the respondent's case denied his withholding and other claims, finding that the respondent did not experience past persecution and had not demonstrated that he would, more likely than not, suffer future persecution.
On appeal, Avila and Cordero argued that the presence of persecution should be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person in the asylum-seeker's position. They used scholarly studies to demonstrate that Voudon curses can cause real, physical pain to people who believe in their power. In light of their arguments, the BIA remanded the case. Jessica Binzoni of the National Immigrant Justice Center represented the respondent at his new hearing and won withholding of removal for him.
Avila, seconded by Cordero, reflects, "This case exemplifies why it is crucial for attorneys to represent those who are the most vulnerable in our society: indigent communities. Our client had lost his case in the lower court, not because he did not have a strong case, but because he lacked the financial resources to find representation and the skills needed to understand the complexity of our legal system and the law. Our team simply had the privilege to fill in those gaps, and we were lucky enough to see that our skills translated into a victory that will forever change our client's life."