Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

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Category: Client Stories

A Guinean Political Activist was Granted Asylum in the U.S. After Fleeing Political Persecution

By: Angelica Merino Monge and Logan Seymour

Source: Pixabay

In 2009, Imani*, a citizen of Guinea, West Africa, fled the country with the youngest of her four children. From 2009 to 2011, the legal team at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC), worked extensively on Imani’s asylum case, which was granted in 2011. Now, eight years after being granted asylum, Imani has rebuilt her life and career in the United States. As a U.S citizen, she remains active in her community by working at Greater Boston Legal Services as an interpreter for Fulani-speaking migrants looking for safety in the United States. Imani says that she misses Guinea: “I love my country, I love my people, it is just still not safe there.” However, she knows that her family is safe in the United States and has made Boston her new home.

Imani fled Guinea out of fear of political persecution because of her participation in an opposition party. Imani’s political opinions and her activism for the equality of women, the right to education, and the need for fundamental political and social change in Guinea made her a target. After her involvement in a rally against Guinea’s military government, which resulted in the beating and massacre of peaceful protesters, Imani received threatening phone calls. “I was one of the victims, I got beaten, I got my car broken, and after that, I was threatened through messages like ‘we are going to kill you and we are looking for you,’” she recalled. Imani knew she could not stay in Guinea without risking her family’s safety, and so she fled to the United States to look for security.

When Imani arrived in 2009, she went to Boston Medical Center for health-related issues, and once there, the center’s social worker put her in touch with Boston Center for Health and Human Rights (BCRHHR), which then connected her with HIRC.  The clinical team—including Sabi Ardalan, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Assistant Clinic Director, along with clinical students Gabriela Vega (JD’12) and Kendra Sena (JD’12)—worked quickly on Imani’s asylum case to meet the one-year filing deadline. In 2011, Imani received good news – she had been approved for asylum. “I was so so happy! I was taking English classes when Sabi gave me a call that I was approved.  There was a little party in the class,” she remembers. After her asylum approval, Imani was referred to Catholic Charities, where they worked on her family reunification and green card applications. In 2012, Imani was finally able to reunite with her children.

Imani describes the legal team at HIRC as a family. Reflecting on the experience, Imani asserted, “We appreciate everything the clinic did for us, they helped us grow, and they follow up, it’s not like, okay, you got your papers bye-bye… If I get stuck down the road, I can call them and get help.” To this day, Imani stays in contact with HIRC, and she made a great impression on the clinical students who worked on her case. Kendra says, “I was incredibly honored to work with Imani to prepare her asylum application.  She taught me so much about being an advocate for one’s self, family, and community, and I am humbled to have played a small part in her story.” Gabriela saw her own mother in Imani. “Like Imani, my own mother immigrated to the United States with a very young child (me), and as I grew older, I saw her more and more as my own personal hero. In Imani, I felt the presence of another hero who, like my mother, endured and overcame so much, with the weight of the world on her shoulders, to pave the path of a better life for the next generation. Imani was incredibly respectful, professional, and an absolute pleasure to work with. I was in awe of her strength and bravery every time we met to discuss her story.”

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

 

 

A Honduran Activist Pursues Justice in the Face of Persecution

By: Alexis Farmer

Source: Pixabay

“I suffered persecution because of my strong beliefs that the government should guarantee the basic rights of its people,” said Elvia*. The 57-year-old mother of two from Yoro, Honduras was persecuted by corrupt political actors in Honduras for her activism. Elvia never thought about living in the U.S. until she found her house burned to the ground and the death threats she received became increasingly more acute.

Elvia had aspirations to become a teacher. At 18-years-old, Elvia, with hair as dark as shoe polish, honey-colored skin and piercing eyes took an exam that would determine whether she would receive one of five available jobs in the teaching market. She scored much lower than she anticipated, despite studying for months. She noticed that the highest score winners were all friends or family members of a powerful congressman in Honduras, or people who were politically connected with the education department. Elvia began asking questions and demanded for her exam to be rescored. “People told me not to go against him,” she said, her eyes full of defiance and patience. She thought the exam process was rigged. Hearing of her intentions, the Congressman visited Elvia’s house to warn her against meddling in the results. His threat didn’t stop her. “I kept going and appealed the decision.” She won her appeal and her corrected score placed her in second. “Fighting for myself made me want to fight for the rights of others,” she said cheerfully. Word of her success spread around the community, and soon she was asked to help advocate for others. That was her first encounter with the Congressman who later became an even more powerful national leader. But it wasn’t her last.

Elvia became a prominent community organizer and an activist for women, teachers, workers, and children in Honduras. Her work with anti-domestic violence advocates led to confrontations with abusers, who opposed advocacy efforts for the humane treatment of women. Through this work she crossed paths again with the Congressman and believed him to be involved in the detention, rape, and disappearance of a woman. She would tell him, “I know what you did,” when they saw each other in town. Soon after, she received threatening phone calls and she believes her house was purposely burned down by allies of the Congressman. “My repeated confrontations with the Congressman and others led to serious consequences such as threats against my life and lives of my loved ones, my father being kidnapped, and being detained unlawfully,” Elvia remarked.

Elvia knew she couldn’t stay in Honduras without risking her family’s safety. In 2000, she and her family fled to Austin, Texas where she and her husband found decent jobs. Moving to the U.S. was challenging, she said. “English was hard to learn. We worked like mules.” Elvia and her husband needed the money, not only to survive, but also to rebuild their house in Honduras. “I always hoped to return to Honduras,” Elvia said. “I fought hard to make Honduras a better and safer place for myself, for my children and for all future citizens and I always maintained the hope that I could resume that work.”

But returning to Honduras was not a possibility. The systematic corruption and violence in the country had only worsened.

After seeking help from friends, Elvia was put in touch with Greater Boston Legal Services, which connected her with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC). “Thank God for institutions like this clinic that restore the value of the people and their dignity. After meeting with community groups and now that I’m involved in the clinic, I feel valued as a human being.”

Elvia felt well represented by the students and the clinical staff. Reflecting on the experience, she exclaimed, “The clinic’s presentation was great!” It took two and a half years for her family’s asylum application to be approved. Elvia and her husband now beam with pride, elated to have U.S. citizenship status. “For me [and] my family, Harvard [Law School] is a blessing. This work is so important and powerful. I feel blessed. One day, one of my grandchildren will study at Harvard.”

Elvia and her family are happy with their life in the Greater Boston area, but she never forgets where she came from. “Even from the United States, I cannot sit by while the country deteriorates,” she stated. Elvia remains active in community-based organizations advocating on behalf of teachers and women. She even helped establish the new political party LIBRE (libterdad y refundacion – liberty and re-foundation) in Honduras. She is happy now that her family can live safely and she wishes the same could be true for others in Honduras. “You can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose where you live.”

*Name changed to protect the client’s confidentiality.

 

U.S. Permanent Resident Almost Deported Until HLS Crimmigration Clinic Proved the Government Wrong

By: Alexis Farmer

Source: Pixabay

Raymond* lived as a legal permanent resident in Arizona for nearly 30 years before being apprehended by local law enforcement and charged with possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. Not long after serving time in prison for his offense, the father of three spent seven months in La Palma Detention Center.

This was Raymond’s first criminal offense, but one that almost got him deported. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) argued that his prior criminal conviction was one of the disqualifying crimes that makes someone with legal status in the U.S. deportable. Although Raymond had paid his debt to society in prison, the government said his offense prompted a second and grave consequence: leaving the United States for good. The Crimmigration Clinic at Harvard Law School, which represented Raymond, challenged the government’s claim and eventually proved them wrong. An Arizona immigration judge ruled in Raymond’s favor, but ICE appealed the decision, arguing that Raymond’s conviction triggered a provision under federal immigration law that required his removal.

Criminalizing immigration status has been increasing over the past twenty-five years, according to Phil Torrey, the managing director of the Crimmigration Clinic at Harvard Law School. Crimmigration – the intersection of criminal law and immigration law – became a burgeoning field of law in the late 1980s and ‘90s when Congress passed a number of measures responding to concerns of unauthorized immigration. These policies made many more types of crimes by noncitizens deportable, emphasized border enforcement and increased the use of detention facilities.

Numerous studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native born U.S. citizens, and the numbers are even lower for immigrants like Raymond that are lawfully present. A 2018 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) stated that almost 7 percent of the “known or suspected aliens” in DOJ custody were legally present and undergoing removal proceedings. According to a 2018 U.S. Sentencing Commission report, immigration offenses and minor drug related offenses are the most common crimes of noncitizens.

Source: Flickr

An expert in crimmigration law for over ten years, Torrey says, “there has been an exponential increase in prosecution of certain federal crimes and the use of criminal enforcement mechanisms in the immigration context.” Immigration infractions are one of the most federally prosecuted crimes, including drugs, firearms, and fraud according to a the Sentencing Commission’s recent report. Just over 200 private immigration detention facilities currently exist across the country housing close to 400,000 individuals. The Pew Research Institute found that “immigrants with past criminal convictions accounted for 74 percent” of all U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests in 2017. Many of these offenses, however, are minor and can be classified as non-violentdrug offenses or simply re-entering the U.S. without authorization.

“Deportation is an extreme consequence for many of the charges,” Torrey said, “but efforts to decouple criminal and immigration law from the federal government are unlikely to happen during this administration.” Torrey noted that many local and state jurisdictions like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston have established protections that block local resources from aiding civil immigration enforcement efforts ICE.

Source: Flickr

2020 Democratic presidential candidates have voiced ideas for decriminalizing immigration if elected. Presidential hopefuls Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren supported repealing Section 1325 of the U.S. Code which makes entry into the U.S. a criminal offense. Torrey thinks that  “decriminalizing unlawful entry and re-entry would be a tremendous first step in ensuring an immigration system that remains civil rather than criminal and protects individuals with bona fide aslum claims.” Castro and former Vice President Joe Biden say that immigration enforcement should focus on individuals with “serious” or “major” criminal convictions – similar to what both President Obama and President Trump claimed to prioritize – but it is unclear whether there would be mitigating provisions for individuals with legal status like Raymond. It’s also unclear what would be considered a “serious” or “major” conviction.

While Raymond was detained, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials confiscated his green card, which isn’t supposed to happen, according to Torrey. Raymond’s time in the detention center was “very stressful.” “I suffered a lot when I was inside there being away from my family. They give you bad food, there is no attention, and they treat you very bad. I was hopeless.” He also said the facility was overcrowded, estimating that, “there were maybe 3,000 people in the center while I was there.”

When ICE appealed the immigration judge’s decision, the case moved up to the Board of Immigration Appeals, (BIA) the administrative appellate body responsible for immigration-appellate appeals. An HLS alumnus who monitors the BIA docket at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), a non-profit organization that provides legal services for immigrants, referred the case to the Crimmigration Clinic. Torrey and two Harvard Law School students, Joy Lee, J.D. ’19 and Harry Larson, J.D ’19 represented Raymond during the appeals process. Torrey and the students were based in Cambridge – some 2,500 miles away from Raymond who was detained in Arizona. Their only interaction was through the phone and mail. “I had a lot of confidence and patience. I trusted them,” Raymond said when reflecting on his experience with the students.

The clinical students argued that in Raymond’s case, the federal drug schedule – categories of drugs classified by the drug’s safety, the potential for abuse or dependency, and acceptable medical use – did not match Arizona’s drug schedule, and therefore did not qualify as the type of crime that should make Raymond deportable. The team was victorious in upholding the immigration judge’s ruling, allowing Raymond to stay in the country he knows as home. “The clinic helped me a lot. Thank God.”

Raymond was successfully released from the detention center in December 2018. In the time since, Raymond resumed his job in maintenance and construction and found an apartment for himself. “I have a different perspective on life,” he said and he was happy to be working again. He was released around the start of the government shutdown, which made it an administrative headache to try and retrieve his green card. Six months later, he’s still missing his green card, which means he can’t travel to Mexico to see his family. “It’s been 4 years since I’ve last seen my kids. What I need is help, for them to give me back my green card. If I don’t get it back, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

*Names changed for the client’s confidentiality.