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CALS Students Win Asylum for Venezuelan Political Dissident

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Atid Kimelman (right) and Emma Mlyniec (second from right) recently helped their client Mateo (left) win asylum with the help of translator Marisela Vazquez (second from left), a former LLM student.

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.

Movie Review: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No NationLike every law student, I’m extremely grateful for Netflix. In this case, not only for its heavy volume of binge-worthy television shows to help me waste time as the gloom and doom of semester finals near, but also because, without the streaming service, a movie like Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (streaming now to Netflix, the first major film distributed solely in this manner) would have never seen the light of day.

This is not a movie that gets made by a major studio in today’s Hollywood, where, save for a few exceptions, there is a laser-like focus on big, loud, tentpole films that are marketed towards a specific audience — often teenage boys — and that can contribute to a franchise’s epic “world-building.”

Beasts had long been a passion project for Fukunaga (previously best known for directing every episode of the first season of HBO’s True Detective), yet he couldn’t get the film greenlit when he pitched it to major studios, which is when Netflix stepped in and picked up the script.

Beasts is indeed big in running time (137 minutes), but, unlike most major studio action films, it is both modestly-scaled and paced. Its depiction of violence is extremely brutal and unrelenting, and it avoids the heavy-handed sanctimony that often comes with studio releases dealing with this heavy type of subject matter.

Using a cast largely of young children and untrained actors, Beasts’ lead is Abraham Attah, who  plays Agu, the youngest member of a family living in a village in an unnamed war-torn African country. In the film’s first twenty minutes, his entire family is brutally executed by government authorities after they are mistaken for spies. Agu barely escapes, running away before he is captured by a rebel commandant who leads a crew of child soldiers.

Idris Elba (The Wire) plays the unnamed commandant of the crew. He takes Agu under his wing (“I am your future,” he tells him and the other child soldiers), and is soon instructing him to kill. Almost instantly, Agu is caught in the vortex of civil bloodshed that killed his entire family and now threatens to define his future.

Fukunaga’s directing craft is on full display: the violent scenes (there are many) are taut and shocking, and there are several shots that capture both the harrowing brutality of Agu’s situation with beautiful shots of the natural landscape of the film’s unnamed setting.

Attah is mesmerizing in his first role. Agu’s eyes show his terror and confusion, yet the forces of evil are too powerful and dangerous for him to openly display weakness. The main force of evil here is Elba. His masterful, charismatic, and altogether terrifying performance as the commandant should earn him an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. In order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, the movie – despite being instantly available on Netflix – had a short-lived theatrical release in 31 theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it made just a paltry $87,000 at the box office. Netflix did recently say, however, that within the first several weeks that it was available to stream, more than three million people had watched it.
The movie is not without its flaws. It’s about 20 minutes too long and some secondary characters who we are introduced to are not given an adequate backstory. But this is still a welcome addition to the Netflix library. If Netflix represents the future of both original feature film making and distribution, this will certainly boost their credibility in both respects. They’ve made a courageous first step with Beasts of No Nation.

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

steve jobs posterTwenty minutes into Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” (now playing at AMC Georgetown) Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is describing to his partner and the film’s titular character (Michael Fassbender) the massive audience just behind a stage’s curtain, eager to hear him introduce a new product, the 1984 Macintosh computer. As Wozniak struggles to describe the enthusiasm of the crowd, Jobs, pressed for time, barks at him that he “can’t really wait for him to come up with a metaphor.” That same sense of urgency carries every scene in “Steve Jobs,” powering it forward as Boyle’s camera frenetically moves backstage from room to room. Written with breathless dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, it hums for two hours nearly without a false note.

Brilliantly played with madcap energy and charisma by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is portrayed throughout the film as equal parts genius and bully. The same moment he’s valued at 40 million dollars and a finalist for Time Magazine Man of the Year, he’s vociferously denying that he’s birthed a daughter and refusing to give his ex-girlfriend money that will take her off of welfare. Several of the film’s supporting characters tell Jobs to his face how miserable and alienated he makes his fellow Apple employees, yet the fire in his eyes for absolute perfection glows stronger. Continue reading