Panel Discussion: Death in the Desert: The Humanitarian Crisis on the U.S./Mexico Border, April 16 at HLS

“There is nowhere on Earth like the place where we work. It is beautiful beyond telling: harsh, vast, mountainous, remote, rugged, unforgiving, every cliché you can think of and more. I have been humbled countless times by the incredible selflessness and courage of the people that I have met there, and I have been driven nearly out of my head with rage at the utterly heartless economic and political system that drives people to such lengths in order to provide for their families.”

– No More Deaths Volunteer

NMD Panel Poster

During spring break, Harvard Law students and clinicians worked with No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Join them for a discussion about U.S. border policy and learn about what students and clinicians are doing to help.

Death in the Desert: The Humanitarian Crisis on the U.S./Mexico Border
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 (12pm-1pm) WCC 3007

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HIRC at GBLS Defends Rights of Local Immigrants

John Willshire-Carrera and Nancy Kelly, Co-Managing Directors of HIRC at GBLS, with their students and colleagues, continue their work on behalf of asylees and immigrants. Rooted in Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the largest legal services program in New England, the Clinic works “from the bottom up,” representing individuals and communities, as well as advocating for law reform on a broader scale. Over the years, the Clinic has responded to numerous important events, including backlash against immigrant communities in the aftermath of 9/11, TPS registrations, the 2007 New Bedford factory raid, and the DACA registration initiative started in 2012. Through this work, HIRC at GBLS strives to teach students how to provide high-quality legal services to individual clients while seeking to change the climate in which cases are adjudicated and targeting issues for broader law reform efforts.

HIRC at GBLS has represented clients in asylum, withholding and CAT cases, and cases involving other forms of relief at all levels – the Asylum Office, the Immigration Courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the Circuit Courts. These cases have often raised cutting-edge issues in asylum protection, including domestic violence and other gender-based harm, and harm inflicted based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as a basis for asylum, and the appropriate standard to be applied in evaluating asylum claims brought by children, including unaccompanied minors. Most recently, the Clinic is representing a number of children fleeing gang-related violence in Central America and indigenous individuals whose claims arise from the genocidal civil war in Guatemala.

The following are examples of some recent cases presented by HIRC at GBLS:

  • John, together with Joel Edman (JD’13) represented an indigenous Guatemalan man who was detained at the border and who remained detained by ICE for over a year and a half while pursuing a claim for withholding of removal. Felipe had suffered ongoing severe persecution until he fled Guatemala over ten years ago. After living in the U.S. for several years, he was denied asylum and removed to Guatemala. In Guatemala, he was brutally attacked again. Barely surviving the attack, he fled again to the US. After a long legal battle, which included a hearing before the Immigration Court, an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, a Motion to Reopen, and a second Immigration Court hearing, Mr. FX was finally granted withholding of removal and released from detention to join his family. He now lives and with his spouse, also a survivor of the Guatemalan genocide, and their children. The Clinic is now preparing to present the claims of his spouse and children, who entered separately also fleeing racist violence.
  • John, together with Maggie Morgan (JD’11) represented Juana, an indigenous Guatemalan woman, in a Motion to Reopen her removal proceedings in 2010. Juana was detained during the Michael Bianco factory raid in New Bedford and had not been able to fully present her claim for relief from removal at the time. She appealed her claim to the Board, which was subsequently dismissed. On the basis of new threats made against her activist parents in Guatemala, as well as to her through her parents, the Board reopened her claim. On March 26 of this year, a local Immigration Judge heard Juana’s claim and granted her asylum application. The claim was based on the extreme harm Juana faced as a child growing up in the midst of the genocide waged on her family and community by the Guatemalan army, the ongoing humiliation and racial mistreatment she suffered as an indigenous girl and young woman, and finally being targeted by a very abusive partner for domestic violence. Juana also testified at her hearing about the ongoing threats on her family who remain very active defenders of their indigenous community in the Department of Quiche, as well as her own political work in New Bedford as an advocate for the rights of indigenous women and indigenous activists in Guatemala. After hearing Juana’s testimony, the Judge granted her asylum based on past persecution.
  • Nancy, together with Jessie Harris (JD’13) and Elizabeth Nehrling (JD’14), represented a woman who, along with her infant daughter, suffered severe burns, and whose four year old son was killed, when a mob representing a rival political party set fire to her home in the wake of an election in Haiti. Nadine was recently interviewed by the Asylum Office regarding her claim, and we are awaiting a decision.
  • Nancy and John are currently representing a Guatemalan woman who was targeted by gang members because of her connection to her brother, who had deserted the gang and gone into hiding. Dina was initially denied asylum by the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals. The First Circuit vacated the Board’s decision, finding that the gang-based harm described by Maria constituted persecution based on her membership in her family and therefore a basis for asylum.
  • Together with Deborah Anker, Nancy and John, participated in the preparation of an amicus brief in a case pending before the Ninth Circuit which raises the question of asylum based on political opinion for a child who organized against gang recruitment in El Salvador.
  • John and Nancy are currently representing an indigenous man from Guatemala in a case before the First Circuit which raises the question of harm inflicted during the Guatemalan genocide against the Mayans as past persecution based on race.
  • John and Nancy are currently representing a Salvadoran man who was threatened by gang members for his anti-gang organizing activities in a case before the First Circuit which raises the question of anti-gang organizing as an expression of political opinion.

Examples of other recent cases presented by HIRC include:

  • Numerous women from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who were detained during the New Bedford raid after fleeing domestic violence, femicide and/or gang-related attack
  • Numerous cases indigenous women and men who survived genocidal attacks against the Mayan Community by the army and the civil patrols during the Guatemalan civil war.
  • Three ethnic Mayan brothers from a politically-prominent family in El Quiche, Guatemala
  • Several indigenous Guatemalans targeted in connection with the Rio Negro massacres in Guatemala
  • Numerous women from Africa fleeing gender based violence
  • A woman from Morocco fleeing domestic violence
  • A gay man from Brazil
  • A transgender woman from El Salvador
  • Several Ugandan political activists

Systemic work of the Clinic with immigrant communities in Massachusetts includes:

  • With a number of other offices and advocates, the Clinic responded to the call for representation and advocacy on behalf of the 361 immigrant factory workers detained during the 3/6/07 ICE raid of the Michael Bianca Factory in New Bedford. In addition to suing DHS in federal court, HIRC at GBLS has represented over 100 of the individual detainees. Seven years later, this work continues. Collaborating closely with Organization Maya K’iche in New Bedford, the Clinic has been able to gain permanent status for many of the individuals detained during the New Bedford raid and their families, and as assisted OMK in its efforts to seek justice within Guatemala.
  • Beginning in August of 2012, the Clinic joined forces with the Student Immigration Movement (SIM) in Massachusetts, to provide over 400 students people with legal support to file their DACA claims. At this time, plans are being finalized to begin providing legal support for those seeking to extend their DACA status.
  • HIRC at GBLS has worked closely with the Massachusetts Immigrant Advocacy Coalition over time, providing legal and organizing support on emerging issues of importance to the immigrant communities in Massachusetts. John Willshire currently serves at the Chair of the Board of MIRA. Recently Summer Moore-Estes (JD”13) began a fellowship working jointly with HIRC at GBLS and MIRA to both provide representation to clients and facilitate joint work between the two programs.
  • The Clinic regularly provides assistance and representation to Haitians, Salvadorans, and Hondurans applying for renewal of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
  • Work with CERJ and Organization Maya Quiche in Guatemala and New England to develop documentation of the targeting of Mayan indigenous communities in Guatemala (from Civil War to the present). Among other things, these resources are being used to document the claims of Clinic clients seeking protection from being removed to Guatemala.
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HIRC co-writes Amicus Brief on Gang-Based Asylum Case

The case of Jose Fuentes-Colocho highlights the complexities of cases involving youth fleeing gang violence. Fuentes-Colocho sought refuge from El Salvador as a teenager after being repeatedly persecuted by Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). MS-13 is no longer just a street gang; it is now the organized insurgency which destabilizes El Salvador’s political scene. It controls municipalities and government officials must negotiate with gang members. Due to his outspoken opposition to MS-13 as leader of a local organization, Jose was beaten unconscious on several occasions and was forced to watch MS-13 members rape his female friends.

Deborah Anker, Nancy Kelly, John Willshire-Carrera, and L. Rachel Lerman (Partner at Akin Gump LLP) recently wrote an amicus brief arguing that MS-13 is a political entity and that Jose Fuentes-Colocho’s opposition to MS-13 constitutes political opinion. Professor Anker believes Jose’s political opinion is a central reason why he was targeted for gang violence. “This is an important case because most of the cases have been argued under the social group ground, which hasn’t been successful,” Anker remarks. “I think political opinion is the way to go in cases like this.” Despite Fuentes-Colocho’s credible testimony, the Immigration Judge expressed that Jose could not ‘explain’ how his opposition to MS-13 was indeed political in nature. The Judge concluded that he was a victim of mere ‘random acts of violence’. HIRC is hoping the decision will be overturned. The case is currently pending in the Ninth Circuit

You can view the brief here.

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Ugandan Domestic Violence Survivor Granted Asylum


A woman suffering severe domestic violence at the hands of her husband fled Uganda and sought asylum in the U.S. With HIRC’s Albert M. Sacks Clinical Teaching and Advocacy Fellow Emily Leung and HIRC students Mevlude Akay (LLM ‘14) and Katie McCarthy (JD ‘15) arguing her case in the Boston Immigration Court, this client was granted asylum in October 2013.

In four and a half years of marriage in her native Uganda, Mary* was regularly abused by her spouse, who was a powerful intelligence officer in the Ugandan military. After suffering years of escalating abuse, Mary realized her life was in danger and escaped with only a few personal items. After reaching the U.S. and settling in Massachusetts, she filed her case in 2010 with the Asylum Office, represented by HIRC. Her case was later referred to the Boston Immigration Court and in October 2013, Emily, Mevlude, Katie, and Mary presented the case in Immigration Court.

The case was scheduled just two days after the government shutdown was lifted. The Immigration Judge expressed that he had not had enough time to read through the evidence and indicated that he might not hear the case. “It was very distressing…just a huge let down to hear him say that after all the work we had done,” says HIRC student Mevlude Akay. Ultimately, HIRC attorneys convinced him to allow the case to go forward, given that the client had waited two years for the hearing.

This case was argued on two grounds: particular social group (gender, nationality, status) and gender-based political opinion. The main evidence presented was testimonies and affidavits from the client, an expert on Uganda’s human rights conditions, a social worker who had treated and evaluated the client on the psychological effects of her abuse, and a medical professional who corroborated the physical violence the client had suffered. “In Mary’s case, we were worried that the law might not be on our side, because asylum law with respect to domestic violence cases is still not very favorable to applicants — particularly because gender alone is not considered a sufficient ground for persecution,” says Katie. “It is difficult to ‘prove’ that an abuser is abusing his partner because she is a woman or because she holds certain opinions, as opposed to because she happens to be his wife or girlfriend.”

The judge found that Mary suffered persecution and granted her asylum status. “I was thrilled with the ruling,” Emily ecstatically expresses. “We had a very strong case and we worked very hard, and are so happy for our client.” Both Mevlude and Katie note that they were dumbstruck at the time and that it took some time for the decision to sink it. This decision was one of the happiest moments of their legal careers thus far.

Although the Clinic has won similar cases for years, there has been no precedential Board of Immigration Appeals decision. Clinical Director Deborah Anker and Co-Managing Director Nancy Kelly have been vocal advocates and completed ground-breaking work on gender-based asylum.

The court victory has afforded Mary immense benefits. Not only does she have asylum status, she also has continued authorization to work in the U.S., a pathway to citizenship, opportunities to further her education, and access to federal benefits. She is also able to begin the process of family re-unification. Assisting her with this family reunification process are students who participate in Harvard’s Immigration Project.

Mary is excited to soon be reunited with the children she was forced to leave behind and looks forward to starting a fresh new life with them in the U.S. “Now I feel like the sky’s the limit,” exclaims Mary. “I have closure on my rough past and I know I can manage anything else to come.”
*Name changed to protect identity of client.

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Reflection on HIRC Volunteer Experience

By Brittany Adams, MTS ’14

Brittany Adams (33333)As a second-year graduate student at Harvard Divinity School in the Master of Theological Studies program, I have had the privilege to volunteer at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic where I have developed a deeper, more nuanced understanding of immigration and refugee law and the critical, rewarding work that Harvard clinical attorneys and law students invest into their cases. At HIRC, I have had the opportunity to learn more about immigration and refugee law through various exciting tasks, such as: legal research; organizing and closing case files; assisting with office communications through social media; and conducting French translation work. My volunteer experience at HIRC, which has exposed me to diverse immigration and refugee cases, has complemented my course work at the Divinity School and Kennedy School of Government, where I have taken courses that focus on the intersections of religion, ethics, and politics when analyzing the human experience of migration.

In one of my courses, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Ljustice for everyoneatin America, Davíd Carrasco, aptly explains that migrants carry “sacred bundles,” which may include culture, language, religion, music, hopes, dreams, and fears among other contents, as they migrate to host destinations. In fact, I realized today that there is a painting of a migrant woman carrying her own “sacred bundle” in the student workspace at HIRC. This painting, which embodies Professor Carrasco’s message, and my volunteer experience at HIRC, highlights how essential it is to affirm the humanity of migrants and refugees as they navigate a new geographic terrain that poses daunting legal, political, linguistic, and cultural challenges.

As an aspiring refugee attorney myself, I have benefited immensely from watching clinical attorneys, Debbie, Sabi, Emily, and Phil, engage with clients with such tremendous empathy and kindness. When I attend law school in the future, I will constantly be reminded of how important it is to interact with clients with the “human touch” that Debbie, Sabi, Emily, and Phil sincerely convey day-to-day in their legal work. As I graduate from Harvard in May, I will carry my volunteer experience at HIRC as part of my own “sacred bundle” that will undoubtedly inform future social justice work.

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