Society / Justice and Law

Spring Break for Others

Written by Claudine Benmar, School of Law

April 22, 2014

Exterior of Sullivan Law School surrounded by blooming trees in the spring

Law students in Professor Won Kidane’s class helped refugees stay in the United States.

When the students in Professor Won Kidane's Immigration Clinic first signed up for this life-changing class, they had no idea they'd have to spend Spring Break in Tacoma. But when the time came, they wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.

In mid-March, when many students were taking a welcome break from their studies, these eight students were fighting for their clients in hearings at the federal Immigration Court at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. It was a week well spent: All five of their clients were granted the right to stay in the United States.

Three refugees from African countries were awarded asylum. Another African refugee was awarded relief under the Convention Against Torture, and a Southeast Asian man was granted cancellation of removal (meaning that his deportation proceedings were halted).

"I can't tell you how incredibly hard the students worked over the last several weeks putting together exemplary briefs and supporting evidence," Kidane said. "Their courtroom performance was equally great."

Kidane, who recently earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholar Award , teaches the Immigration Clinic as part of the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic. Since 2009, he has directed his students' efforts at helping clients at risk of deportation. Cases are referred by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Second-year student Christina Wynter said the clinic quickly became her most important class. "There was always something to do for my client, but it was work that I wanted to do," she said. "Knowing that you're helping a real person, it just matters more."

Sarah Clifton, also a 2L, said the opportunity to help a real person carried enormous significance. "You can only apply for asylum once. This was it for him," she said. "I saw him deteriorate before my eyes, the longer he was held at the detention center. So you start to take it very personally."

Four of the clients - those refugees granted asylum and cancellation of removal - will be able to become permanent residents in a year and apply for citizenship in five years, if they choose. The fifth client will be allowed to stay in the United States and work, but not become a citizen.

Two of the African refugees had been targeted in their home country for pro-democracy political views. Abtin Bahador, a 3L who represented one of the men, conducted extensive research into that country's dismal human rights record to provide supporting evidence for the clients' cases.

The government sends all youth in that country to a military camp after 11th grade for their final year of school. However, the camp is more like a prison and the year of education more like national service, which can include forced labor, beatings, torture, and confinement in shipping containers. One client was accused by camp guards of being a traitor for allegedly helping students escape.

"Now he'll be able to continue his education here in the United States, which is all he ever wanted," Bahador said. "He should have a great future."

Since his own family fled to Canada from Iran in the 1980s, fearing religious persecution, the victory was especially poignant for Bahador. "I'm a refugee, so I've experienced first-hand the transformative power of being granted this status," he said. "I've seen what can happen when you have the freedom to decide your own future."

Another client was a young gay man fleeing persecution in his country, where homosexuality is illegal and gays and lesbians are frequently attacked.

Some of the clinic's clients made their way to the United States at great personal cost and perilous risk, sometimes paying human smugglers to help them cross the borders of multiple countries.

The students made several trips back and forth to Tacoma throughout the semester for preliminary court hearings and to visit the detainees, often driving in complete silence, emotionally exhausted from hearing their clients' stories.

"I learned so much about myself," Wynter said. "Being someone's attorney has more to do with being a counselor than I realized. Your relationship with your client, and how you conduct that relationship, is so important. That should be a required class in law school."