Score another victory for students in West Virginia University’s College of Law immigration clinic.
Five WVU students recently helped a man gain political asylum in the U.S., adding to a list of cases the students have won since the clinic was created in 1996. The client, who prefers to keep his name and country of origin anonymous, was tortured and persecuted in his homeland because of his belief in democracy and attempts to exercise free speech.
The Hon. Charles Honeyman, of the Immigration Court in Philadelphia, granted asylum protection after the man’s claim was initially rejected by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. Ultimately, the federal government waived its appeal in the case.
It was another in a list of life-changing verdicts for the clinic’s clients, but the experience was just as meaningful for the students.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings in the world, knowing you played a big part in helping this man, maybe saving his life,” Brian McKinney, a third-year student from Philadelphia said. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career in law school.”
Along with McKinney, the students involved were Charles Hall, Caitlin Bailey, Ryan Knight and Noumann Rashid. They were supervised Robert S. Whitehill, Esq., an adjunct faculty member who practices at the firm of Fox Rothschild of Pittsburgh, Pa. Also supervising the students was Shelley Cavalieri who taught at WVU last year and is now on the faculty of the University of Toledo’s law school. A WVU law student served as interpreter.
In his home country, the client had sought to organize an event in memory of people killed by his government for airing their grievances about its policies. He was arrested by the police, detained and beaten.
After that encounter, he suspended his activities and came to America on a visit and observed that political protest was protected and that people were able to demonstrate against government actions without being persecuted. With new resolve, the client returned to his home country and resumed his organization of the event. He was arrested, held by police for interrogation and subjected to torture. A successful businessman, he was also forced to sign documents ceding all of his property to the government. Also, he was told by a government official that if he remained in the country, he and his family would “disappear.”
After returning to the U.S., the client was put in touch with Whitehill and WVU through a regional U.S. immigration office. The students were able to demonstrate to the judge that their client faced further arrest, torture and possible death if he were to return home.
“I remember reading the case file,” said Knight, a third year student from Clear Spring, Md., “and if that wasn’t compelling enoughjust to meet the guy in person, sit down and have dinner, talk to himit was amazing what he had been through and what he had overcome.
“He was depending on us for his safety and his life. He’s a great guy. He deserves to be able to stay in the United States and deserves to be happy.”
Work on the case took a little more than a year with Hall handling most of the initial preparation. McKinney said working with Whitehill, a renowned immigration lawyer, was crucial to the students’ success.
“His guidance was unparalleled; you couldn’t ask for a better supervisor,” McKinney said. “He definitely took a hands-off approach but was also there to support us, which I think was a great way to supervise us. When we made mistakes, he’d tell us where we went wrong but he really let us get our hands in the case.”
Knight’s job was to deliver the opening statement, a task he found both intimidating and exhilarating.
“I want to be a lawyer, and I want to go to trial,” he said. “To have the experience of getting up and saying something in front of a judge, you can’t compare that to anything in the classroom. Even if you’re a summer intern and work for a firm or an office, you don’t get that opportunity. At trials, you’re a spectator.”
Earlier this year, law school students gained asylum for Yuri Pushkarev, a Russian blogger who had been critical of President Vladimir Putin and fearful that his country’s government would retaliate.
The students also won a high-profile asylum case that 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 cancelation of removing Gonzalez-Rodriguez and even went a few steps forward. The judge granted him a green card and, in five years, citizenship.
Since its creation, 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 former 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.
Since then, the Clinic has won political asylum cases for clients from Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries.
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