ONTARIO, Calif. – University of La Verne College of Law students working with the school’s Justice and Immigration Clinic recently won asylum for a Central American man who an expert said would have been killed had he been returned to his home country. The clinic also won humanitarian relief in another recent case for two other people from Central America.
As part of their practical skills training with the law school, the seven students who worked on the cases interviewed clients, found and retained experts, drafted and filed briefs, drafted direct examinations, prepared witnesses and appeared in court. They were guided by Professor of Law Diane K. Uchimiya, director of the Justice and Immigration Clinic.
La Verne Law’s Justice and Immigration Clinic, established in January 2008, provides pro bono assistance to immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. because they are suffering political, religious, and other human rights persecution in their home countries. Students chosen to work with the clinic have a valuable opportunity to represent their client before the Immigration Court in Los Angeles and possibly to save the client’s life.
To date, the clinic has represented 21 clients. It has completed 15 cases, winning relief in 12. Four cases are pending, and two were transferred to other attorneys.
In the clinic’s recent victory, students represented a Central American man fleeing from persecution by a gang. Students helped to prepare and present the case in Los Angeles. The immigration judge granted asylum and other humanitarian relief under the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that forbids a state from returning someone to another country where that person could be subjected to torture.
“Our client was truly someone who was fleeing for his life.” Professor Uchimiya said. “The case was stressful, given what was at stake, and the students felt responsible for their client’s life.”
Krystal Rodriguez, who worked on the case as a student and is now a successful immigration attorney, said she was impacted by the client’s story. “I remember reading things late at night and going to sleep and having nightmares about what happened to him. It is really amazing how involved you can become and how much you care.”
Suzanne Johnson, a 2010 graduate of La Verne Law who also worked on the case as a student, agreed. “The last thing I wanted to see happening was for him to get sent back,” she said.
The experience was emotional, but it also helped the students hone practical skills they use in their work as attorneys today: interviewing, witness examination, legal writing, time management and an ability to “think outside of the box,” Johnson said.
“From the very beginning we felt that, unlike our other law school classes, this was real life,” Johnson added. “We wanted to do the best we could do because we wanted the best outcome for our client.”
The man who was granted asylum, whose identity has been withheld to ensure his safety, came to the United States when he was very young and was not affiliated with any gang, Uchimiya said. He had no criminal record in his home country. Asylum is the most desired form of humanitarian relief because it can lead to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.
In the second case, involving a girl and a female relative, the judge denied asylum but granted withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture, which allows them to remain in the United States. One of the applications was based on domestic violence and the other was a gang persecution case in which the person seeking protection had no gang affiliations.
While immigration law is a high-volume practice, the clinic keeps its caseload small so students can learn as much as they can.
“Most students begin the semester nervous and tentative,” Uchimiya said. “The immigration clinic challenges their preconceived notions about practicing law. They must learn to plan the development of the case, investigate facts, research the law, and draft briefs and memoranda simultaneously. They must learn to anticipate and react to new information as well as changes in the law.
“What students gain in representing a client in Immigration Court is not only valuable immigration experience, but valuable litigation experience,” Uchimiya said. “Immigration judges often praise them for the quality of their representation.”
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