The opportunity to make a difference in the life of a stranger is rare. Here is the story of the humbling experience when my partner and I somehow won the asylum case of a desperate woman in need.
by Scott Daniel / / October 29, 2010
One year ago today, my former law school clinic partner Priscilla and I argued an asylum case on behalf of a young woman whose previous life was scarred by brutal acts of genocide. We won. So today is that young woman’s 1st birthday. I found it fitting to re-publish my account of this emotionally draining experience from my last blog, the d.c. diaries. The events described herein concern a real life legal and personal drama. Therefore, out of respect for my former client’s privacy, I opted to give her a pseudonym and re-cast some of the details of her life. To my knowledge, many of her friends and family still live under the threat of ethnic and political violence in her home country today. I assure you, however, that the essential facts of what transpired last fall are preserved.
This was and will always be the greatest triumph of my life…
* * *
My heart pounded in my chest as I scrolled down the page. Curse the Board of Law Examiners, I muttered internally. Why is this page so long? I imagined that the caffeine-addled patrons of Borders could hear both my internal dialogue and the rhythmic thumping that accompanied it. They paid no heed. I courageously pressed forward to find my seat number, among the last of 1,583. Finally, with a stutter-step of my breath, there it was. Bold and cold, set amongst dozens of others in a table invariably copied-and-pasted from a Word document:
“1433 – Pass”
No exhilaration. No celebration or triumph. Just a wave of calm relief. Oh, thank God, I whispered as I exhaled. I wrestled with the Maryland Bar Examination, and I prevailed. It was 4:32 in the afternoon on a Friday, and I promptly dialed ten digits on my cell phone.
“Hello?” my father replied on the end.
“I’m a lawyer.”
I suppose now that I am. But believe it or not, passing the bar exam was not really a cause for celebration for me. More than anything, I’m just glad that I don’t have to fight with that beast again. No, passing the bar is a means to an end. In a sense, it was a formalization of an end reached eight days earlier. “1433 – Pass” was nice to read, but the following words were even nicer to hear:
“…the respondent has met her burden of proof…”
My co-counsel Priscilla and I sat numbly in a small courtroom on the 13th floor of a mid-rise office building in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. The Immigration Judge reclined attentively as the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) read aloud a prepared statement. Behind us sat Adaline, a short 30-year-old African woman. As the DHS attorney moved through the elements of the case, Elizabeth, our supervising attorney, gently took Adaline by the hand and began interpreting in clean, unbroken French. I was too exhausted to feel anything, and I had actually braced myself for defeat. I turned to Priscilla and whispered what I never expected to say that afternoon:
“I think we just won.”
Priscilla didn’t respond. Instead, she stared through her glasses, likely in shock. It took her some time after that to form a complete sentence.
The DHS counsel continued: “Your Honor, upon seeing and hearing the respondent’s testimony today, in light of the evidence on the record, including expert medical and psychiatric evaluations and the corroborating testimony of three sworn and notarized affidavits, the government concludes that the respondent has met her burden of proof that she has a well-founded fear of persecution upon return to Burundi, on account of her dissident political opinion, such that she is unable to return and avail herself of the protection of its laws.”
The Judge turned and sternly looked at Priscilla and I, a wry smile creeping up the side of one lip.
“Mr. Daniel, do you object to the government’s finding?”
I’m normally fairly quick on my feet when speaking publicly. It took several guffaws before I was finally able to blurt out, “Sure, Your Honor.” Nice.
The Judge chuckled. ” ‘Sure’, it is. Then I’ll adopt the government’s position as dispositive in this case. Asylum is granted.”
I heard Adaline begin to weep deeply. I had seen and heard her cry before, mostly out of unfathomable sorrow as she recalled trauma from the darkest recesses of her memory. This cry was of a different genus and species. From a different place in her heart. I quickly scribbled on a note in French, tore it from my legal pad and passed it behind her.
Adaline, a French-speaking native of Burundi and a victim of severe political persecution in the form of a machete, was my first client as a student attorney with the International Human Rights Law Clinic during my third year of law school at American University. Before Adaline arrived in the United States four years ago, she had endured beatings, imprisonment, and death threats in her native country simply for her dissent against government policy. Her original application for asylum was denied on “credibility” grounds by a faceless bureaucrat. The government placed her in immigration removal proceedings. The stakes were nothing less than her right to live. Win, and she can stay in the United States indefinitely, apply for her green card, and perhaps, down the road, citizenship. Lose, and she is as Daniel cast back into the lion’s den from whence she escaped.
We were originally slated to argue her asylum claim in October 2008. A procedural snafu resulted in the continuation of the case until October 2009, well after Priscilla and I would graduate. We opted to continue with the case on a pro bono basis, as the Immigration Court does not require bar passage, only a J.D., to practice. Otherwise, Adaline would have a third set of brand-new student attorneys working her case in the span of little more than a year.
Now Adaline is free to live, work, and play for the rest of her life in the United States. Her children will soon be granted legal status in the U.S. under a grant of derivative asylum. That still hasn’t set in yet. We saved her life. There is no rhetorical eloquence or poetic oration that can possibly describe what our victory means.
And so, in a little over two weeks, I will take the oath of office and gain admission into the Maryland Bar at a ceremony of pomp and circumstance at the Court of Appeals in Annapolis. Soon after, I’ll begin my practice, winning and losing cases of varying degrees of magnitude. But I’m sure that nothing in my career will equal our victory for Adaline last month.
As far as I’m concerned, I am now, and forever will be, 1-0.