Guest Blog Post: CUA Law Students Win Asylum for a Salvadoran Mother Who Fell Victim to Gang Violence

This post is by Tagreed “Tina” Nafisi and Junou Odige, law students at Catholic University.

In October, when we met Martha* we could not even begin to fathom the endless hurdles we might have to jump. When one door would close, a window would appear. When something seemed like a dead end, it was really a detour. Throughout this journey of preparing for the individual hearing, two things remained constant though: our client’s faith and our diligence.

Our first hurdle was the language barrier. Neither one of us spoke enough Spanish to translate. We knew this would have its setbacks because now it would involve a third person that our client did not know. In our first meeting, we decided not to ask Martha details about her story yet. Our first goal was very simple, to gain her trust. In our minds, we didn’t see the point of representing someone if they did not feel involved in the process. We wanted her to feel comfortable with us as well, and to feel like a member of our team. This level of thought and preparation would soon take us very far in the type of relationship we established with out client. Here we were, students who had never practiced immigration law or ever met this woman and we expected her to tell us her whole life story and essentially trust us with her life. We truly wanted to know our client on a personal level. We let her know immediately that this was a team effort and that everything we would do moving forward would be in her best interests. From there we started our journey to prove she deserved the protection of the United States of America.

In preparation for the Master Calendar Hearing, we strategically began to go through the I-589 application with our client. As a team, we always made sure that one of us typed and the other one asked the questions. In our minds, we saw this as an opportunity to get to know our client better. She always had the full attention of someone and at the same time, we ensured that we gathered the facts. We soon began to ask her questions about her family and her past history in El Salvador. When our client told us that she was married with three children and only the youngest one was a U.S. citizen, we then realized that we were responsible for the lives of her husband and children as well. When we eventually met her husband and children, we felt like we had known them for years.

About one month and a half before the Master Calendar Hearing, we encountered another hurdle. We had to have a difficult conversation with our client after only meeting with her once. Our client’s daughter was previously placed in separate removal proceedings and ordered removed by a judge due to a missed Master Calendar Hearing. We had to inform our client that her daughter could be picked up by ICE or sent a letter for her to pack her bags and go to El Salvador. We could see the tears well up in her eyes. In that same moment, we could see that our client was truly a woman of faith and she believed that God placed her in our care to ensure her protection. This made us feel a lot of pressure, but we embraced it because we knew our client was counting on us.

We continued to work on the asylum application and began gathering facts about her persecution in El Salvador. As we listened to her story, we realized that we needed Martha as much as she needed us. We began to think about how to weave the facts Martha had given us into legal theories. As we worked on the case theory, we realized that our client did not meet the asylum one-year filing deadline. We also had to work on our client’s goal of getting her work authorization so she could support her family financially. For those reasons, we had to work more diligently to “lodge” the application sooner than the Master Calendar Hearing.

The day of the Master Calendar hearing was cold and rainy. It was our first time representing our client in court and we were both nervous. During the Master Calendar Hearing, we noticed lawyer after lawyer enter their pleadings and we took note of what went well and what didn’t. When it finally came our time to step up, we realized we had more strength than we initially thought. We introduced ourselves to DHS and everything went very smoothly. At the end, Judge Slavin commended us for doing a good job. It was a small victory, but we knew that there was still much more preparation left.

During Christmas break, we encountered our next hurdle. We sought a mental health evaluation for our client because we realized that her past persecution had caused her much emotional distress and it could be a potential exception for overcoming the one-year filing deadline. We had noticed that each time Martha recounted her story, it was as if she was reliving it. We became genuinely concerned about her emotional well-being and the effect it had on her, and how it had previously affected her ability to seek protection. Thus began our journey to find a pro bono psychologist. As we did our research, we realized how hard it was to get a pro bono psychological evaluation, and with only four months to spare we could not waste any time. We eventually found a psychologist but he would not be able to see us until March which was too close to our individual merits hearing. Left with no other options, we started to fundraise for our client so we could hire a psychologist to conduct the evaluation as soon as possible. Before doing that, we had to ensure we raised money in an ethical manner, so we did some research. In only a week and a half we were able to raise $1500 and a week later we found a psychologist. We will never forget the joy we felt after we booked our first appointment with the psychologist for Martha.

In the meantime, we also began to search for a pro bono country conditions expert on the gang violence in El Salvador. Thankfully, that task was a lot easier; within one day of searching via personal connections we were able to find a country conditions expert who had extensive knowledge on gang violence in El Salvador from his work, including his experience with USAID where he developed programs with the government to help combat this problem in El Salvador.

We had a strong case theory – our client had been targeted and harmed on account of her religion and her family relationship to her son – but we needed to have a good foundation of evidence to support our theories. This is where we faced our next hurdle. Our client was very diligent and met all our deadlines. We had asked for her to get as much evidence as she could to support her case, such as letters from her family members and witnesses in El Salvador. Luckily, we were about to gather a lot of documentation that corroborated our client’s claims.

However, we faced some preventable hurdles once we received the evidence. One hurdle was that we had spilled water on some of our original documents our client had obtained from El Salvador. At the time, it seemed like costly carelessness. Fortunately, all the documents were salvageable but now we had to explain to not only the court, but also our client why water had spilled on the documents. From that day on, we made sure to keep the documents in a sealed plastic folder in a bag separate from any liquids. We also understood our professors’ insistence that we not eat or drink around our case file.

The other hurdle was that all the documents our client gave us were in Spanish and we needed to have these translated. Fortunately, we were able to find volunteers for these translations, but, unfortunately, we had to work off the volunteer’s timeline, which did not provide much opportunity for review. The day we compiled our filing for the court, our professor caught translation mistakes. Instead of spending two hours composing our filing, we had to spend an additional four hours as we rectified these mistakes. It was an unfortunate experience, no one ever wants to mess up, but as students, this was our chance to learn from these mistakes so we would not have to encounter them later on in our careers. We were grateful we had our professors supervising our work; they were there to catch and correct any mistakes to ensure we did not prejudice our client’s case and they were there to help us learn valuable lessons from our mistakes that we would take into our careers as attorneys. Each and every hurdle we faced, we learned from, but one of the most important things we learned was to have a calendar and to plan things in advance, far in advance, to have ample time to meet deadlines and to review our work before submitting it. As we’ve learned, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

In preparation for the individual hearing, we began to interview our experts and our potential witnesses, which included Martha’s son and husband, while we continued interviewing Martha. During these interviews we would collect as much information as possible to compose affidavits for each of our experts, witnesses, and Martha. This was important because everyone we interviewed played an important part in the case. It was as if we were putting a puzzle together for each part of the story we heard. In interviewing her son, we saw that he had the same resilience that our client had. He had faith and believed in the system. Soon this faith began to become a crucial part of our legal theory and our case development. It was as if her faith and courage transferred onto us and kept us going. We also constantly had support when we couldn’t do it on our own. In addition to the constant support of our professors, Professor Mendez and Professor Collopy, we also had experts, guest judges for our moot trial, and our fellow classmates which helped us all in different ways.

Just when it seemed that everything was going well, we had to overcome another hurdle. Our expert witness could not be found a week before our filing deadline was due. We eventually found out that he had a family emergency. Devising a fall back plan when our original plans did not go as intended had become normal to us. At this point there was nothing that could go wrong that we could not deal with in one way or another. We ultimately filed our brief and supporting documents without the declaration of our expert witness. When we finally reached the expert and obtained his signature we filed a motion a week later seeking to have the judge accept our late filing given his family emergency.

After filing, we still had a long way to go. We had to now prepare our client for testimony. We knew our client’s story well, but again, we had to fit all of her persecution into less than an hour testimony. This testimony had to be sufficient and credible to rule in our favor. We continued to prepare ourselves as well. We knew DHS and the judge would have questions of their own so we attempted to anticipate their concerns and practiced with our client. We thought preparing our client would be the easiest part of the case, but we were wrong. This was the hardest part because, again we did not speak Spanish, so we had to work around three different schedules, and in addition, we had to do it countless times in the span of 14 days from the filing deadline to the hearing date. Fourteen days seemed like a lot of time but when there is a language and cultural barrier it is a lot harder to explain to your client the law, the purpose of her testimony, and what her testimony can provide for her case. Fortunately, we persistently worked with our client in preparation for every scenario and we were ready for her day in court.

Then, right when we thought nothing else could go wrong, something unimaginable happened. One day before the Individual Hearing, we found out that an Immigration Judge had previously ordered our client deported in 2006, and that DHS planned to move to dismiss the proceedings claiming that she was ineligible for asylum. This took us all by surprise—our client never had notice of this deportation order and this was the first time we had received notice of this—, but our professors stepped in again, as they did whenever anything would go wrong, and handled the situation very calmly, which gave us the confidence to go forth. Although we were confident, we had to make sure we fulfilled our due diligence as student attorneys, and made sure to inform our client about the bad news. We explained to her what had happened and that the worst case scenario would be that she would be ordered removed and not granted any relief. It was hard to tell her this the night before the hearing, but as the resilient woman that she is, she took in all the information very calmly and was fine. Her calmness concerned us at first, so we double checked, asking her how she felt, to which she responded, “I am fine, I know God will take care of me.” Again, this faith became a living, breathing, and moving aspect of our case.

The day of the Individual Hearing, we attempted to negotiate with DHS but they were certain that the case should be dismissed. Our professor spoke on our client’s behalf arguing that Martha remained eligible for asylum and the proceedings should not be dismissed. The Judge agreed with our professors, so we were able to present the case. All of the preparation coupled with our client’s faith came together when Judge Slavin granted Martha asylum, but requested time to issue a written decision. DHS reserved appeal, but we recently learned that DHS never filed an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals.  Judge Slavin’s order granting asylum to Martha is now final.

After Judge Slavin gave her order, it all seemed so unreal and we remember our professors asking if we understood what had happened. We left the courtroom with our client and in that moment, we were again reminded that we were truly a team. We had benefited Martha just as much as she had benefited us. We were also reminded that we had saved an entire family. Martha’s husband and three children would now be able to go on to do great things in the United States and, most importantly, they would be able to live without fear. Although we went our separate ways that day, we will never forget this experience and all that we have learned from it.  We will never forget the confidence that our clinic experience instilled in us and the lessons we learned that have truly prepared us to practice as attorneys in the future. We will go into our careers to help others, just as we helped Martha that day and during the months leading up to it.


*The name of our client was changed to protect her identity.

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