For many Americans, the word “refugee” calls to mind images of war torn cities in the Middle East, perilous life boats, and mass human migration. The current international refugee crisis became a major talking point in American politics leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Candidates displayed a wide range of ideological standpoints on the issue, with some aiming to close our doors completely while others sought to open them further. Now, the future of refugee policy in this country remains unclear, but many people are more dedicated than ever to the goal of making America a welcoming place for those seeking safety from abroad. For those like Professor Jon Bauer from the University of Connecticut School of Law, the pursuit of this goal began much earlier than the European migrant crisis of 2015.
In 2002, Professor Bauer founded the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Connecticut School of Law. The program grew out of a civil rights clinic, which dealt mostly with employment and housing discrimination. Professor Bauer, who had a longstanding interest in immigration issues, was attracted to the idea of an asylum clinic because the timeline of case litigation would allow students to see a case through from start to finish. Today, he is joined in his leadership of the Clinic by Professor Anna Cabot, who was the managing attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas before becoming a part of the Clinic in 2014. Together, they oversee the program, supervise law students who devote an intensive semester to representing asylum seekers, and teach the clinic seminar.
The Asylum and Human Rights Clinic pairs law students with clients who have fled their home countries and are seeking asylum in the United States. Professor Bauer’s goal in creating the program was to provide these people with legal representation that they would otherwise not have received, while simultaneously giving students the opportunity to gain valuable real world legal experience. Since asylum seekers have no right to an attorney, most the Clinic’s clients would otherwise be navigating the process without any legal guidance. Additionally, clients have the benefit of having a legal team that’s not only passionate about their cause but also exclusively focused on their case; whereas most practicing attorneys juggle a large number of cases, each team of students in the Clinic has a single client.
Over the course of a semester, students guide their clients through the complicated process of applying for asylum. In most cases, this begins with conducting multiple client interviews over a period of many weeks, and evolves into a large scale research and advocacy project. Students assemble data about the political or social circumstances that caused their client to flee their homes, in addition to specific evidence showing that their client’s safety would have been in jeopardy had they not fled. Students also prepare a legal brief that explain why the client is eligible for asylum in the U.S. In many cases, this involves working with medical and psychological personnel who can verify the cause and extent of the client’s physical and mental injuries. Since the Clinic’s inception, it has also established a collaborative relationship with the UConn School of Health and the UConn School of Social Work to provide an increasingly comprehensive support network for its clients.
At the end of each case, students represent their client at an asylum hearing and present their story, along with the evidence they collected, to a judge. To date, final decisions have been reached in 122 of the Clinic’s cases, and it has won 113 of them. In comparison, the overall success rate for asylum seekers is only about 25% in the courts where the clinic handles cases and about 40% nationwide. Many of the Clinic’s clients who have been granted asylum also have family members who were able to join them in the United States as a result of the positive outcome of their case.
These victories also represent accumulating legal precedent that future asylum seekers will benefit from. In 2015, students in the Clinic successfully litigated one of the first asylum cases to recognize that people who oppose gangs are expressing a political opinion and can qualify for asylum if they fear persecution based on that opinion. This decision is now cited by asylum advocates across the country. Also in 2015, students successfully helped a Chinese woman and her family gain asylum after she had been coerced by the Chinese government to have an abortion under China’s one-child policy. Students had to overcome the high burden of proving that the woman had actually been coerced into having the abortion as opposed to receiving it voluntarily. They met this burden by presenting both extensive client testimony and expert testimony in addition to research on the prevalence of this practice in China.
The opportunity to participate in such high-stakes cases is not commonplace in law school settings. Students who are lucky enough to enroll in the Clinic find that it becomes one of the cornerstone experiences of their law school careers. I spoke with Dina Naiem and Robert Vossler about their experience in the clinic last semester. Prior to participating in the clinic, Dina worked for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and took a refugee law class that solidified her interest in using her legal skills to advocate for human rights issues. Robb was unfamiliar with asylum law going into the clinic, but had travelled to South America for service trips and was similarly interested in human rights legal work.
As a team, they represented a woman from Central America who was facing physical gender based violence in her home country. Working with a translator, they began by interviewing their client and her family. Their primary initial goal was to gain her trust and become familiar with both her story and the circumstances that led to her decision to seek asylum in the United States. They then worked to build a collection of research that would provide factual support to her story. Both Dina and Robb described the process of preparing the case as a full immersion into the realities and intricacies of legal work. Preparing the case tested their real-world lawyering skills by requiring them to become adept interviewers, researchers, and legal writers. Although they met weekly with Professor Cabot and were free to consult her for advice, Dina and Robb were entirely responsible for their case. This meant long hours, piles of paperwork, and rigorous trial preparation that culminated in a final hearing. When I asked them how the hearing went, I expected the response that it had been a bundle of stress and anticipation; after all, the outcome of an asylum case can change a client’s life forever. Instead, both said that they had prepared so extensively that they were confident the case would succeed.
All of their hard work finally paid off when the judge granted their client asylum. This means that their client can stay in the United States and begin to rebuild her life here. Dina says she feels lucky to have been able to make such a concrete difference in the life of someone who was so genuinely in need of aid. She also knows that the Clinic’s work will become even more important as the political climate evolves in future years, and she encourages law students who are interested in human rights and gaining litigation experience to get involved. For Robb, he says the gravity of the victory hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but he knows that someday he will look back on his experience in the Clinic and see it as a defining moment in his law school career.
For students who are interested in participating or learning more about the Asylum & Human Rights Clinic, more information is available on the UConn Law School website.