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Cornell Asylum Law Clinic Aids Immigrants

Cornell Law Forum: Spring 2005

One of the newest Cornell Law School clinics has also become one of the most sought-after for student practitioners. The Asy­lum and Torture Convention Clinic, co-directed by Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr and Lawyering Program Lecturer Estelle M. McKee, has a long waiting list each spring. Only eight are chosen to participate in the clinic. Once selected, they work in teams of two on appeals for asylum and Convention against Torture (CAT) cases on behalf of detained immigrants around the coun­try. The students interview clients, research the law, and draft appellate briefs, all in a semester.

The work is intense, but rewarding. As one student noted, “participating in the asylum/CAT clinic was one of the best choices I made at Cornell. The clinic offers a great opportunity to have client contact, and to see our legal research and writing training at work. I found it particularly gratifying to write a real appellate brief and see rapid responses from the government at­torneys and the court. However, the most rewarding moment of all was when my partner on the case and I received word from Professor Yale-Loehr that the court decided to uphold our client’s CAT appeal!”

Another student added, “It’s one thing to learn the law from case books and fictional legal methods scenarios; it’s another thing to be handed a client whose ability to escape the most bru­tal instruments of state repression likely depends on your brief-writing skills. The asylum clinic is an incredible introduction to refugee law and appellate advocacy because it lets you work on a real and intensely compelling case while you are still within an academic environment.”

The asylum/CAT clinic has had excellent success so far. Nor­mally, only about seven percent of immigrants win their adminis­trative appeals. The clinic’s success rate is about five times better. And even when they don’t win directly, the clinic’s students help their clients in other ways. For example, in one recent case the clinic gained a remand for a mentally ill Haitian to give her another chance to prove that she would be tortured if forced to return to Haiti.

A new independent study conducted on behalf of the Depart­ment of Justice to evaluate programs like the Cornell Asylum and Torture Convention clinic has concluded that the program has been effective and successful in its goal to seek high quality pro bono legal counsel for immigrants facing deportation. The study found that immigrants who were provided representation through the program were much more likely more likely to win a favorable decision than those without legal counsel. The study included quotes from Professor Yale-Loehr and Ms. McKee. The full study is available at