Immigration Law Clinic and Legal Writing students team up to win asylum case

Students in the Immigration Law Clinic have helped secure asylum for two East African women  who had been victims of abuse and intimidation. The victory means that the women, who now live in Seattle, will be able to live and work legally in the U.S., become permanent residents after a year, and apply for citizenship five years later.

Clinic students Karin Tolgu '09, Andrew Buffington '09, Grant ManClark '09, and Yunji Kim '09 assisted Adjunct Professor Monika Batra in representing the clients in their applications for asylum and, in the alternative, for T-visas (special visas that can be granted to victims of human trafficking).  When the cases were referred to the clinic from the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project last year, they appeared to be fairly straightforward. Soon afterward, though, a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals threatened to significantly weaken the basis for the asylum claim.

So Batra enlisted the help of Professor Laurel Oates, director of the Legal Writing Program, and Edwin Abuya, who at the time was a visiting legal writing professor from Kenya. Together, they developed a fact pattern based on the clinic cases that was assigned to five first-year legal writing sections in the spring semester. The result was more than 80 memos thoroughly examining the women's claims from a variety of angles - a massive body of research and analysis the four clinic students would have been unable to produce on their own.

"Knowing their work could affect the outcome of a real case had a positive impact on the quality of the memos students wrote," Oates said. "It also made them engage with the assignment in a different way."

A number of those students are now considering immigration law as a career path when they graduate.

The collaboration between the clinic and the Legal Writing Program was so successful that it will continue. In addition, Batra, now an associate director of the Access to Justice Institute, and Oates have identified several other nonprofit legal advocacy organizations in the area with cases that can benefit from this approach. This spring, all of the first year Legal Writing sections will work on memos based on actual needs of these legal advocacy organizations.

The two clients had both been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) as young girls in their home countries, one of them multiple times. Each later found work as a domestic servant with the same family. The situation there was abusive and intimidating, amounting to little more than forced servitude. As domestic staff, the women accompanied the family on many of their travels, and on one of those trips in 2007 they were able to escape and eventually made their way to Seattle.

The T-visa applications have been suspended since the women received approval of their asylum applications. Tolgu continues to work with the clients to assist them in acquiring identification documents and applying for benefits to which they are entitled as asylees.

"Seeing what we accomplished here for our clients is truly empowering," she said. "I came to law school because I wanted to help people, but I never thought I'd be able to have this big an impact before I graduated."