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Immigration Law Clinic students win asylum for refugees

May 19, 2016

Every Saturday morning, law student Hyun-Ji Lee left Seattle at 7 a.m. to beat the traffic, arriving at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma by 7:45. There, she and her clinic partner would patiently file through security to meet with their client in one of six small cubicles, noise booming off the walls of the prison.

For the first few visits, the frightened young Salvadoran woman barely spoke. Who were these law students? Could she really trust them with her violent, traumatic story? Would they protect her?

She could, and they did. Lee and her partner won a grant of asylum for the young woman as part of their work with the Immigration Law Clinic at Seattle University School of Law. Refugees who are granted asylum are able to become permanent residents of the United States in one year and apply for citizenship in five years.

Clinic students won asylum for two clients this year and secured release under bond for five others.

A grant of asylum requires that a client prove three things: a threat of persecution in their home country, membership in a protected class (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group), and failure by their home country's government to stop the persecution.

Visiting Professor Amy Kratz said the Salvadoran woman's case was especially challenging because it involved gang violence, and it is difficult to establish persecution by gangs on account of a protected ground. "The students wrote a beautiful brief," she said. "They had to learn so much case law and so much about the conditions in El Salvador to help this client."

Additionally, the students faced tough opposition from government attorneys. "They proceed from a 'floodgates' argument, that so many people are fleeing violence in Central American and cases such as this one would open the floodgates," Kratz said. Though the Department of Homeland Security's lawyer agreed that the young woman would likely face torture or death if she were deported back to El Salvador, they still insisted that she should not be granted asylum.

In another asylum case, law students represented a man from central Africa who was covered with scars from multiple beatings, a victim of ceaseless ethnic violence in his homeland. "His story is hard to imagine, and hard to hear," Kratz said. Represented by another team of clinic students, he also won asylum while detained, and will now be able to bring his wife and children to join him here in the United States.

Clients are referred to the Immigration Law Clinic by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and often arrive in the United States after perilous escapes from their home countries. When they arrive, they are placed in detention until their case can be heard. Many never have the benefit of legal representation. Those who are represented by counsel are six to 10 times more likely to prevail in their claims.

The immigration clinic is just one course within the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic, which is ranked in the top 15 such clinical programs in the country. The students, usually eight per class, work with a small number of clients in order to dig deep into their cases. Students learn firsthand what it takes to represent a real client, and often give up valuable weekend and vacation time in order to so do.

For Lee, every moment was worth it.

"Our client only spoke Spanish, so everything she said was translated by my clinic partner, who's bilingual. I never heard her say anything in English until we were exiting the courtroom, right after the judge had granted her asylum," Lee said. "She took my arm and pulled me aside a little bit and said, 'Thank you.' That was an incredible moment."