Mateo* fled his home country of Venezuela after agents of the government assaulted him through brutal beatings, unwarranted stalking, and death threats in retaliation for his anti-Chavismo political activism. Mateo requested asylum immediately upon his arrival at Dulles International Airport in April 2017. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then assigned him to expedited removal proceedings and detained him at the Farmville Detention Center, a private facility used by the DHS and located in rural Virginia. The Capitol Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (CAIR), referred Mateo’s case to the Center for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Georgetown Law Center’s asylum law clinic
Over the course of Fall Semester 2017, two student representatives from CALS, Emma Mlyniec (L’19) and Atid Kimelman (L’19), worked side-by-side with Mateo to develop an evidentiary record and prepare a legal brief to convince an immigration judge to both prevent Mateo’s return to Venezuela and permit Mateo to remain in the United States. Ultimately, their diligence won the case: the judge granted Mateo with asylum—putting him on a pathway to U.S. citizenship. And while this journey, for Mateo, Mlyniec, and Kimelman presented great rewards, their obstacles rewarded them with even greater lessons.
Arriving at the Heart of the Issue
Mlyniec and Kimelman enrolled in CALS to culminate years of accumulated legal studies: immersion in immigration law, strengthen practice skills, and serve a vulnerable client. “Especially as the political winds blow against welcoming refugees into our country, I wanted to represent an asylum seeker hoping to start a new life in the United States,” Kimelman said. “The experience helped me develop skills in client representation and trial advocacy that will help me wherever my career takes me.”
Over the course of four months, Mlyniec and Kilmel drove more than 2,800 miles (or about 8 roundtrips) between the nation’s capital and the Farmville Detention Center. Each trip supplied them with the unfortunate details of Mateo’s persecution and alerted them to the substantial risks he faced because of his contrarian political beliefs and actions. Back in Venezuela, Mateo was a well-educated tax auditor working for a Venezuelan municipality during which time the pro-government leadership in his office engaged in discriminatory policies and subsequent harassment as a result of his oppositionist political views. Despite this, Mateo frequently traveled to political protests and vocally expressed his political views on social media—he was essentially a working member of an oppositionist political party. Government-backed paramilitaries unleashed a series of attack against Mateo: they vandalized his car, left a threatening note for him, and wounded him when he tried to obtain evidence of corruption and misconduct by the regime-backed local government. Eventually, the government officials threatened him with death, after months of stalking him in an unmarked SUV.
Transportation hurdles, fact-finding, and language barriers interfered with the timeliness—but not the determination—of all three involved. Both Mlyniec and Kimelman faced numerous obstacles in developing the record for Mateo’s hearing. Corroborating evidence is critical in asylum cases, but their first visit foreshadowed just how difficult it would be to serve a client locked in a detention center more than a three- hours drive from Washington D.C. Even basic communication with Mateo, including phone calls, email, and fax, were extremely difficult because of the conditions of his confinement. Obtaining professional service was also challenging. For example, finding a psychologist who could provide such services in Farmville proved unsuccessful and frankly impossible. Instead, Mlyniec and Kimelman had to arrange for Mateo to be transferred to Fairfax, VA for a psychological evaluation, which provided critical corroborating evidence of the persecution he suffered.
Additionally, Mateo’s asylum hearing was conducted by videoconference because he was detained, making it even less likely that the judge would be able to adequately judge Mateo’s credibility, which is central to asylum determinations. “This experience vividly demonstrated the host of due process issues that immigrant detention poses,” Mlyniec said. “From incredibly limited access to counsel—to not being allowed to appear in person for your own court hearing—it is clear that the system is stripping detained immigrants of the relatively few rights afforded to refugees in general.”
Making the Case
These frequent roadblocks did not deter Mlyniec and Kimelman but gave them a comprehensive apprenticeship into the heart of lawyering. Both representatives learned to advocate vigorously for their client. Such work involved procuring affidavits from nine of Mateo’s friends, family, and work colleagues from Venezuela. They also meticulously investigated human rights conditions in Venezuela, researched applicable asylum law, and wrote (and re-wrote again and again) a lengthy brief. At the same time, the students also obtained expert affidavits from a psychologist and trauma surgeon to corroborate the trauma and physical injuries Mateo suffered, as well as three political scientists who bolstered Mateo’s case by explaining the dire climate in Venezuela for political dissidents. In total, they compiled a 754-page submission, including dozens of evidentiary exhibits that they filed in court.
“The difficult work of developing an evidentiary record is a crucial aspect of lawyering that you can’t learn by reading a casebook,” Kimelman said. “It was also incredibly rewarding. Speaking with Mateo’s friends and family, and seeing the ways in which he was loved and supported, showed the best in humanity.”
Because of the depth of evidence in the written submission, the DHS trial attorney conceded a number of issues before trial. However, the DHS attorney still wanted to hear Mateo testify to make sure his testimony lined up with his written affidavit and supporting evidence. Mlyniec, who conducted Mateo’s direct examination, said she “was grateful for the opportunity both to develop trial skills and to help our client tell his side of the story in his own words.”
After a short and perfunctory cross-examination by ICE’s attorney, the Immigration Judge granted Mateo asylum and ICE waived appeal. Mlyniec and Kimelman immediately drove down to Farmville to pick up Mateo, who was now free after seven months in detention. A few days later, Mateo celebrated his first Thanksgiving in the United States.
The Influence of CALS
“CALS students perform such heroic efforts because the cases are so demanding—we carry a significant burden of proof in immigration court,” said Georgetown Law Professor Andy Schoenholtz, who directed the CALS program during 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.”
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 selects 12 students 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.
“CALS is hard, but professionally, it was the most productive and meaningful semester of my life,” Kimelman said. “The opportunity to help someone as kind, generous, and humble as Mateo remain safely in the United States was incredibly rewarding and taught Emma and me so much about zealous and effective advocacy.”
*Name has been changed to protect his privacy.