Espionage and political intimidation. And West Virginia University.
This isn’t the plot to an action-packed thriller. Rather, it depicts Yuri Pushkarev’s last days in Russia before he fled to the United States out of fear of retribution.
A journalist, Pushkarev penned a blog critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s government. He claimed he knew of incriminatory inside information against high-ranking government officials.
So when Russian agents visited his mother’s home, he knew they weren’t there to drop off birthday party invitations.
They were there to seize Pushkarev’s computer. It was time for him to scram.
Pushkarev, now 53, came to the U.S. on a tourist’s visa in 2008. He had no intention of returning home.
That’s when the Immigration Clinic stepped in to help him pursue political asylum, under which a person persecuted for political or religious beliefs in his or her own country may be protected by another sovereign country.
Created in 1996, the Clinic composed mostly of law students and a couple of professors has served international residents throughout West Virginia and western Pennsylvania with deportation, asylum and other legal proceedings.
The Clinic was the brainchild of James J. Friedberg, its director and the Hale J. and Roscoe P. Posten professor of law at the WVU College of Law. Friedberg founded the project at the urging of his international law and human rights students as a volunteer pro bono undertaking. He then turned the project into a Clinical course.
-Law Student Greg Pennington
A member of Puskarev’s team
Since then, the Clinic has won political asylum cases for clients from Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries.
Not only do the clients benefit, but so do law students, who gain real-world experience by working on actual cases.
“Ninety percent of the work is done by the students,” said Friedberg, who came to the College of Law in 1980. “They end up being more successful than some of the attorneys that non-citizens find who give them limited services for substantial money.”
Pushkarev’s story is one example.
The Russian native first arrived in Los Angeles in 2008. He lived in a Russian community and started talking to a Russian lawyer about his reluctance to return home.
“I told him I was afraid to go back (to Russia),” Pushkarev said. “He said, ‘Yuri. No problem. Give me money and I will help you.’”
The lawyer financially cleaned him out, and his quest for asylum went nowhere.
But a former West Virginia resident living in L.A. would serve as the catalyst for getting Pushkarev what he wanted to avoid deportation and stay in the U.S.
Twists and turns in West Virginia
This friend would tell Pushkarev, “Go to West Virginia. They can help you there. They have very good lawyers.”
In December 2009, the friend would accompany Pushkarev to Morgantown. But then the friend died.
“Now I was alone,” Pushkarev said. “No friends. Wow. My life went down, down, down.”
Penniless and friendless, Pushkarev lived a tent under the Westover bridge. He’d also rely on the Bartlett House, a homeless shelter in Morgantown. He’d splurged most of his money on the L.A. attorney and ended up selling his car.
At this point in his life, Pushkarev admitted to thinking about suicide.
But Pushkarev did not give up.
His luck took a turn for the better when he met Shelley Cavalieri, a former visiting assistant professor at the WVU College of Law and then co-director of the Immigration Clinic.
“She told me, ‘Yuri, we can help you at the Immigration Law Clinic,’” Pushkarev recalled.
Cavalieri and her cohorts at the Clinic set out to fulfill that promise.
Pushkarev started meeting with the Clinic but several roadblocks thwarted them at first.
“At first, Mr. Pushkarev, just like many other Immigration Clinic clients, posed a problem: he did not speak any English,” said Greg Pennington, a law student who worked on the case. “This language barrier, as well as the cultural barrier that usually accompanies it, is the hardest to overcome in dealing with the clients.”
The Clinic splits up into teams to tackle cases. A three-person team including Pennington, law student Olexandra “Sasha” Tolmatska and professor Michael Blumenthal, oversaw Pushkarev’s case.
Blumenthal, visiting professor at the WVU College of Law and co-director of the Clinic, envisioned three potential outcomes: asylum, deportation or administrative closure.
A case with an administrative closure ruling means that the court will not prosecute undocumented immigrants as long as they lack a criminal record and stay clean. The Obama administration recently imposed these new guidelines.
“Those cases are put on the backburner,” Blumenthal said.
But to achieve a successful ruling, the team had to overcome those barriers with their client.
Luckily for Pushkarev, Tolmatska speaks Russian and served as a translator for him.
“Slowly, over the course of the semester, we gained Mr. Pushkarev’s trust and his willingness to cooperate, despite the disdain he had for the long, drawn out process that is the immigration system,” said Pennington, who graduates in May.
To build up his case, the students argued that Pushkarev was a victim of the Russian government’s tyranny. If he had to return to Russia, his life would end up in danger, they argued.
“Yuri’s life was in the Clinic’s hands,” Pennington said. “That kept me from sleeping. If Yuri was sent back to Russia, he would certainly face some form of persecution at the hands of the Russian government for his vocal criticism of Vladimir Putin’s regime, including the ultimate penalty that other Russian journalists have faced: death.
“But I was prepared. I knew the case, every detail, from beginning to end, and I knew that I was going to be a good advocate for Yuri.”
Yuri’s day in court
A hearing date was set for December 2011 in Pittsburgh.
After months of anticipation, Pushkarev and the Immigration Clinic team were ready to argue their case in front of an immigration judge.
As Pennington prepared to deliver his opening statement, an attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement interjected. He said his office was prepared to offer Pushkarev administrative closure.
Pushkarev and his team accepted.
While administrative closure isn’t quite the same as being granted asylum, it was a more desirable outcome than deportation.
“There was always the potential that the judge could deny Yuri’s claim and send him back to Russia,” Pennington said. “In the end, Yuri was pleased to obtain some form of relief, even though it was not the ultimate relief of United States citizenship.”
In addition to this ruling, Pushkarev got his life back on track. He now has an apartment and works in the pressroom of The Dominion Post. He has a driver’s license, Social Security card, and even a fishing license.
“West Virginia is a very nice, good state,” Pushkarev said. “My life is here. I have money. I have a home. All I want now is to get my mother over here.
“If I were still in Russia, maybe I would not be alive today. Right now and right here, I am not afraid.”
A history of helping
Pushkarev isn’t the only person to benefit from the Immigration Clinic. One high-profile case was made headlines in 2010.
Aaron Gonzalez-Rodriguez was an undocumented worker who got pulled over in Charleston for turning left on a yellow arrow. He had entered the country by crossing the Mexican border in 1994. He was only 13, and he had no documents.
The Immigration Clinic argued to an immigration court that Gonzalez-Rodriguez didn’t have a criminal record, was a person of good moral character and that his deportation would cause extreme hardship on his family. Living with him in West Virginia were his wife, who is deaf, and their two daughters.
The judge granted cancellation of removing Gonzalez-Rodriguez and even went a few steps forward. The judge granted him a green card and, in five years, citizenship.
Each semester, the Clinic is tasked with about a dozen cases, which usually involve two large-scale ones, such as Pushkarev’s or Gonazlez-Rodriguez’s.
Friedberg, the founder of the Clinic, said the big cases tend to take up 60 percent of the Clinic’s work. The remaining 40 percent is devoted to simpler issues, such as filing green card requests, student and worker visa issues, and the like.
After this year, Friedberg is stepping down as director of the Clinic.
“It’s a demanding operation,” he said. “In the senior years of my career, I want to focus more on research.”
Robert S. Whitehill, a prominent immigration attorney with Fox Rothschild, LLP, of Pittsburgh, serves as a Clinic co-director and has been involved with the Clinic since its inception.
Immigrants must meet certain poverty guidelines to receive help from the Clinic. It operates only during the fall and spring semesters.
Freidberg and Blumenthal said the Clinic is an all-around win-win situation that benefits WVU, the immigrant community and the law students who work on its cases.
“Everyone should take a Clinic before graduating,” said Pennington, who decided to sign up for the class in fall 2010 after a controversial immigration law passed in Arizona. “It is real world experience, working with real clients, and that prepares you better for the practice of law than any doctrinal class.”
Pennington said his experiences in the Clinic will aid him in his future career. After graduation, Pennington plans to serve as a law clerk to a federal judge in the Northern District of West Virginia.
“I did not know much about immigration law, and my need to be an informed citizen on what was sure to become, and has become, a hot button issue in today’s political debate, drove my decision to take the class,” he said. “This class, and some passionate words by one of the directors of the Immigration Clinic at the time, led to my interest in becoming involved in the Clinic.”
By Jake Stump
CONTACT: University Relations/News
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.