This story was written by Center for Applied Legal Studies staff. The Law Weekly was not involved in writing the content of this article, but edited it and deemed it necessary to publish.
Sasha (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) fled her home country of Burundi after a powerful Hutu general threatened, raped, and left her for dead because she is a Tutsi woman. When she first came to the United States in 2012, Sasha’s application for asylum was rejected by an immigration official. Sasha, unrepresented at the time, was then placed into deportation proceedings. While that case was pending, Sasha found the Center for Applied Legal Studies, the Law Center’s asylum law clinic. Over the course of their semester in CALS, Sasha’s student representatives, Leigh Ainsworth and Rachel Hitchins, worked intensely with Sasha to develop an evidentiary record and write a legal brief to convince the immigration judge that Sasha should be allowed to remain in the United States. Ultimately, the hard work paid off – the judge granted Sasha asylum, putting her on a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Ainsworth and Hitchins had enrolled in CALS hoping to learn about immigration law, develop practice skills, and serve a vulnerable client. “I wanted to learn firsthand what it meant to represent a client in immigration court and to help a client navigate a complicated—and at times, frustrating—legal system,” Ainsworth said. In the students’ first meeting with their client, Sasha broke down in tears. She revealed that when she was only fifteen years old, the general began harassing and threatening her. He made sexual advances toward her, using his position of authority to stalk and threaten her when she refused him. Sasha’s family hid her by sending her to boarding school, and while she was there, her mother died under suspicious circumstances. Not long after, the General found her again. He then kidnapped and brutally raped her, and left her for dead in a forest. Sasha was rescued by a kind woman who found her there.
The students faced numerous legal obstacles. The general who raped Sasha had been murdered since she came to the United States, making it more difficult to prove that she would be still in danger if deported to Burundi. Also, corroborating evidence is critical in asylum cases, but getting corroboration of Sasha’s story was incredibly challenging for Ainsworth and Hitchens because Sasha’s brother, a key witness, was in hiding in the countryside for fear that the Hutu military would kill him.
Language barriers and the difficulty of finding a Kirundi interpreter also hindered communications with witnesses in Burundi. Moreover, certain parts of Sasha’s story could only be corroborated by the woman who had rescued Sasha. That woman lived in rural Burundi, without internet or phone access.
Hitchins noted, “Immigration cases are rarely without their setbacks, but even in the face of challenges, Leigh and I never faltered, thanks to motivation we drew from our client, and our own commitment to the cause.”
Ainsworth and Hitchins advocated vigorously for their client, finally procuring affidavits from Sasha’s family in Burundi and Sweden, as well as from her employers, teachers, and doctors in the United States. Because of the voluminous evidence they amassed, the opposing counsel from the Department of Homeland Security ultimately did not object to a grant of asylum by the immigration judge.
Despite the horrors she survived in Burundi, Sasha is “thankful for another chance at life.” Sasha is now rebuilding her life, and she hopes to become a physician’s assistant. “Working in CALS and with Sasha was a life-changing experience,” said Hitchins. “Although I myself experienced a significant psychological and emotional toll because of what Sasha had been through, I have never felt more driven and determined.”
“CALS students perform such heroic efforts because the cases are so demanding—we carry a significant burden of proof in immigration court,” said Professor Andy Schoenholtz, director of CALS in the fall semester. “Our students have proven to be incredibly dedicated, sustaining the long hours and creativity necessary to build the case, and learning how to pull it all together in court on the day of the hearing.”
Ainsworth observed: “CALS is hard, but it was worth it. Knowing that someone as kind, humble, and resilient as Sasha could remain safely in the United States and move on with her life was rewarding and gave both Rachel and me confidence in our abilities as lawyers.”
CALS prepares its students for the demands of asylum cases through twice-weekly classes and weekly, student-led case team meetings with a faculty advisor. The classes cover a range of litigation skills, such as interviewing, researching, legal writing, and hearing preparation. Through simulations, students have the opportunity to practice these skills before they have to perform those tasks in their real cases. Classes also cover the “softer” legal skills, such as dealing with some of the psychological pressures that arise when serving survivors of torture and other trauma, time management, collaboration with a partner, and learning to accept responsibility for a client’s case.
The clinic grants 10 semester credits, and students devote an average of 35 hours per week to CALS activities. Each semester, the clinic enrolls 12 students each who work in pairs to represent six different asylum-seekers, who come from all over the world. In recent years, CALS has represented political activists, racial minorities, victims of gender-based violence, and other survivors of torture or repression from Cameroon, El Salvador, Honduras, Libya, Guatemala, Eritrea, Russia, Liberia, Togo, and elsewhere.
Reflecting on her CALS experience, Ainsworth stated, “I took CALS in my second year to help get me through a grueling three years of law school. CALS gave me the tools to advocate effectively for vulnerable individuals in the immigration system. It also showed me the value of the theory and skills that I was picking up through my other classes.”