Immigration Law Clinic Student Tells Story of Winning Asylum for Client
Past and current students of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law recently won asylum for a Bolivian woman fleeing her abusive husband. Having taken on a voluminous case history, which included two previous deportations, second-year law student Lisseth Ochoa-Chavarria talked about the challenge of being the latest student to take up the woman's cause.
Imagine my surprise when I was handed a large file on my first day of class and was told that my client had six other large files waiting for me in the Immigration Law Clinic Director Doug Ford's office. To say that I was overwhelmed would be an understatement, but alongside feelings of nervousness came a strong sense of responsibility and excitement.
Elizabeth Almendras, a citizen of Bolivia, came to the clinic in 2010 seeking to apply for asylum. Elizabeth’s story is one of terror and sadness, but it is also one of great perseverance and strength. At a very young age, Elizabeth married a man who quickly became both verbally and physically abusive. He neglected her and their children, and squandered his earnings on alcohol without providing his family with enough to survive on. When Elizabeth decided the abuse and neglect had been enough and moved in with her mother, the abuse only escalated. All of this was compounded by the fact that her husband worked as a police officer for a large part of that time, and later as a security guard with strong connections to the police. Due to these connections, none of Elizabeth’s formal complaints were filed, and her husband faced no repercussions for his actions. Most importantly, these connections ensured that there was no place in Bolivia where Elizabeth could start a new life with her children, which is why Elizabeth decided to head for the United States.
Client Elizabeth Almendras with law student Lisseth Ochoa-Chavarria
By the time I took Elizabeth’s case, at least 10 other students had worked with her. [They include Jenny Lee '12, Catherine McCord '12, Diane Rish '12, Christine Breton ’14, Jessica Thompson ’14, Sarah Allen '15, Katrina Moberg '15, Natasha Reed '15, Heather Diefenbach’16 and Stephanie Boutsicaris '17] All of those students completed an essential portion of Elizabeth’s case, and without them, we could not have obtained the victory we so suddenly did. I began Elizabeth’s case with the expectation that my role would be to write a brief, but a little over a month into the semester, we heard from the Office of Chief Counsel that they no longer opposed Elizabeth’s application for asylum. The government’s non-opposition is a tribute to the quality of the work by all the students — their sensitive handling of the client and persuasive legal briefing. About a week after that great news, we were scheduled to be in court for a hearing, an unusual turn of events. After only about 15 minutes, the judge granted Elizabeth asylum in the United States; the amount of happiness and relief that we all felt is indescribable.
Working alongside and learning from Doug Ford has been an enriching experience, and I am extremely appreciative to have had the opportunity to work with Elizabeth and to see her case through to victory. Working on Elizabeth’s case taught me a great deal about asylum and immigration law generally, but most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to learn how to work with a client. The majority of courses offered in law school provide opportunities for students to get into the case law and “think like lawyers,” but hardly any give students perspective on working with actual clients. The law takes on a whole new meaning when you put a face and a backstory to a case name.