By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Just a few weeks before their graduation, Nicole Conrad ’22 and Joya Manjur ’22 stepped before a panel of U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges, ready to square off against the U.S. Department of Justice. The asylum petition of Oscar Gonzalez-Castillo, an El Salvadoran who had been representing himself over years of wrangling, hung in the balance.
Conrad and Manjur came to the case through Berkeley Law’s Ninth Circuit Practicum, which gives students the opportunity to craft and argue cases under the supervision of attorneys — in this case, lecturers Amalia Wille ’13 and Judah Lakin ’15.
In late August, the Ninth Circuit panel issued an opinion that closely follows the arguments made by Conrad and Manjur.
“The court’s decision was not only a meaningful and important win for our client, but it broke new ground in the Ninth Circuit, and opened up the ability to be granted asylum for many others who were previously barred,” Wille says.
It was an incredible feeling to share the good news with Gonzalez-Castillo, who had been waiting for so long, Conrad says.
“We had spent a year thinking and writing about how our client deserved justice, and it was gratifying to see that come to fruition,” she says.
Seeing new angles
Gonzalez-Castillo left El Salvador in 2014 for the United States, after run-ins with the infamous MS-13 gang and police, who accused him of being part of the group. In 2020, the U.S. government moved to deport him. He applied for asylum, withholding of removal from the country, and relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which would also prevent him from being sent back to his home country.
But at Gonzalez-Castillo’s hearing, the government introduced a “Red Notice” in his name. The notice identified him as a member of MS-13, and alleged he’d been involved with the gang during a 2015 incident. The immigration judge denied Gonzalez-Castillo all relief, citing the Red Notice as evidence that he had committed a serious non-political crime in El Salvador.
The notices — which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is increasingly relying on in asylum cases — are notoriously unreliable. “Contrary to popular media portrayals like Netflix’s recent Red Notice film, the notices aren’t ‘reserved for the world’s most wanted criminals,’” Manjur explains.
“In reality, they’re merely requests for law enforcement worldwide to ‘be on the lookout’ for the subject of the notice, and they are often abused by corrupt governments,” she says. “So having the chance to clarify what Red Notices actually are and help develop the law around Red Notices in the Ninth Circuit was really exciting.”
In their briefs and at the argument, Conrad and Manjur pointed out numerous flaws in the Red Notice for Gonzalez-Castillo — including that the 2015 incident it references happened after he was already in the U.S. Given the errors and weaknesses, they argued, the Red Notice couldn’t possibly be enough evidence to deny his asylum application.
The Ninth Circuit panel agreed, noting that other circuits have recognized that a Red Notice, by itself, isn’t enough to establish probable cause.
“We do not adopt a per se rule that a Red Notice is never sufficient to warrant application of the bar,” Judge Richard Clifton wrote in the panel’s opinion. “But given the nature of a Red Notice and the issues with this particular Red Notice, we conclude that the Red Notice in this case lacks sufficient probative value to support a probable cause finding.”
The panel sent Gonzalez-Castillo’s case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals for further review of his withholding of removal and CAT claims.
“It was such a relief to get a favorable decision,” Manjur says. “We were so happy to finally be able to deliver some good news to our client, after everything that he has been through and all of the hard work that he put into his own case at the agency level.”
Now that they’ve graduated, Conrad and Manjur are working pro bono to use the Ninth Circuit’s decision to support a request for Interpol to rescind Gonzalez-Castillo’s Red Notice, hoping to improve his chances of getting out of detention as soon as possible.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision came after a lot of hard work: Both Conrad and Manjur say they expected the intensity of the practicum but were still surprised by its depth.
“The practicum definitely exceeded my expectations,” Conrad says. “From start to finish, I felt like I was doing important work with the most incredible people. I developed the skills I knew I would — research, writing, oral advocacy, etc. — and can see the improvements over time. I got to use those skills in service of our client, and it was an honor getting to know him and working with him on his case.
“And I couldn’t have asked for a better team; Joya is one of my favorite people, and Amalia is the best supervisor in the world.”
Wille calls the practicum “an amazing capstone for legal education.” Limited to 3Ls, it focuses on developing their skills while serving clients in a real case. She practices immigration law at Lakin & Wille, the firm she and Lakin founded in 2019, and has seen ICE’s increasing use of Red Notices firsthand. It’s been particularly harmful for noncitizens who can’t afford a lawyer, and who aren’t able to make the arguments Conrad and Manjur did.
“In asylum and deportation appeals especially, the stakes are high, and students see how the law affects the safety and trajectory of an individual life, and how our skills as lawyers can be put to use serving others,” Wille says. “In Mr. Gonzalez-Castillo’s case, the court’s decision created new precedent and will help asylum seekers throughout the Ninth Circuit.”
Conrad and Manjur both chose Berkeley Law because of the school’s strong resources for pro bono and public interest law, and say the practicum was the perfect way to finish their time as students.
“The opportunity to do this kind of pro bono work and have a real-world impact while still in law school is exactly why I came to Berkeley Law,” Manjur says. “Programs like the Ninth Circuit Practicum are such a great way for the school to give back and allocate resources to clients who need representation, while also providing incredible training for its students.
“My participation in the practicum has reaffirmed my commitment to public interest work and given me invaluable lawyering experience that will serve me well as I begin my legal career.”