Via the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program

Nate MacKenzie and Nora Picasso Uvalle, LLM ’19 (far right) pictured with their clients

On May 9th, Temporary Clinical Instructor Nate MacKenzie and clinical students Nora Picasso Uvalle LLM ’19 and Carolina Perez Feuerstein arrived at the Boston Immigration Court with their client and her family. They had submitted a massive, 650 page file that detailed how Isabel* and her children had faced severe persecution at the hands of corrupt government officials in their home country of Guatemala, and they we were ready to defend their case in court. However, just as they were beginning the trial, the judge did something unusual.

“The judge basically told the trial attorney that it was an incredibly well-documented case and pushed her to concede,” MacKenzie explained.

It was a joyful moment not only for Isabel and her family, but also Picasso and Perez Feuerstein, who had spent the entire semester helping build Isabel’s case, from preparing affidavits to researching country conditions to locating expert witnesses. MacKenzie noted that this is a true example of how, as he put it, “the real work is in the paper.”

Still, the students faced challenges in the case. As part of their preparation for trial, Picasso and Perez Feuerstein had to interview each of the clients numerous times. Tiny details, such as whether to translate a word as “village” or “town,” can affect the trajectory of a case so Isabel’s legal team had to ensure that they knew every aspect of her story. However, in the beginning, Isabel and her children felt frustrated when the students and attorneys asked them repeatedly about the same stories and events. Sensing this tension, Isabel’s attorneys and students decided to try to describe their legal strategy in a new way.

Picasso explained, “We just sat down and told them ‘We need to ask you these questions over and over again because we need to write a book about your lives and, for that matter, we need every single detail.’” With this new concept in mind, Isabel began to open up to the students and, ultimately, this helped Isabel’s legal team win her case in court. Picasso smiled as she recalled that, as they were leaving the courthouse, Isabel’s son said that now he wanted to write a story about his family and their lives.

Every day, clients like Isabel are required to share intimate details of their lives in order to seek refuge in the United States. Those seeking asylum and Withholding of Removal must provide proof of future harm, which often means recounting some of the most traumatic moments they have ever experienced. Both attorneys and students alike were inspired by Isabel’s courage to speak her truth in order to provide a better life for herself and her family here in the U.S.

“I think that I will never forget how much Isabel and her kids have taught me. Especially their strength and resilience in facing difficulties. It is an example that I will always have in mind when going through hard times,” Perez Feuerstein said.

*Client’s name has been changed to respect her privacy