Immigration clinic helps human rights activist stay in the country

(March 9, 2010) A human rights activist who has lived nearly his whole life in the United States was saved from deportation by a student and professor from Seattle University School of Law's Immigration Law Clinic.

The 27-year-old has lived in the United States since he was 4, and attended school, including college, here. His grandparents are citizens and filed a petition seeking legal status for him and his parents before he turned 18, but it has yet to come through. He remained an undocumented immigrant, though he worked for nonprofit organizations and volunteered.

The man was detained in March 2009 and faced the frightening reality of deportation. "I always felt like I belonged here, but for the first time, I felt the fear of having everything taken away," said the client, "EJ."

Professor Won Kidane of the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic went to visit EJ at the Northwest Detention Center.

"He made me feel hopeful when I thought I had nothing to be hopeful about," EJ said. "He explained what my options were."

EJ was released from detention after seven days, but he left knowing many others without representation would have to stay much longer, and that those who don't speak English face additional obstacles.

Kidane and 3L Clinic student Kacie Baldwin took on the challenge of representing EJ and persuading a judge he should be allowed to remain in the country because he belonged to a persecuted social group that warranted protection.

Baldwin argued that the client faced being sent to a country he didn't know, where he could face persecution because he is gay and had been outspoken about the Mexican government's treatment of gays in Mexico. His predicament was compounded by the fact that he would be identified as an American gay man. Baldwin's research uncovered systematic and widespread instances of violence against gay men and human rights activists in Mexico.

She found an expert witness, University of Washington anthropology professor Jason DeLeon, who testified that EJ could be subjected to persecution if he were returned to Mexico. Her filing was more than 240 pages and her argument persuasive. A Seattle Immigration Court Judge granted "withholding of removal," a form of relief that allows EJ to stay and legally work in the U.S. The judge complimented the clinic's representation.

"Kacie deserves congratulations for her great work," Kidane said.

EJ said he is a proud Mexican American and worries that people will think he is rejecting his cultural roots.

"My heritage is something I'm proud of, but this is my home, and I had to fight to stay here," he said.

Baldwin found the case daunting, but she was undeterred.

"One aspect of immigration law that I find both frightening and exciting is the gravity of these sorts of cases," she said. "Someone's freedom and safety are in jeopardy; having a role in whether the person gets to remain here is extremely humbling and motivating to do a good job."

She appreciates the opportunity to do such important work while still a student.
 
"So much of the classroom work is theoretical, but this provided an opportunity to put what I've learned to good use - to appear in front of a judge and actually practice law," she said.
 
EJ said his background weighed heavily on him, and he rarely talked about his undocumented status. After his experience - and hearing so many stories from those he met in detention - he has opened up, but he still fears talking publicly.

"I have an obligation to my community to talk about this," he said. "I feel like I have an opportunity to use my story to advocate for immigrant rights."
 
He is even considering going to law school to work for immigration reform.

"I'm so grateful to Seattle University School of Law," he said. "This whole experience has been terrifying, but I get to be normal now. I get to be home."