By Sharon Rohwer
By the time “Mr. C” walked through the doors of the East Bay Community Law Center’s Immigration Clinic in April 2006, he had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, and he was facing deportation to a country in North Africa. Yet it was his deep-rooted cultural shame that the staff and students who worked on his case found most crippling—and heart-wrenching.
“During our first meeting he couldn’t even look at me. He was telling me things he’d never told anyone before, and he still wasn’t very open,” said EBCLC Staff Attorney and Clinical Supervisor Linda Tam ’00.
Mr. C eventually warmed to the staff and students at the clinic. And more than two years later, they helped him win political asylum in the U.S., possibly saving him from persecution and even death in his homeland.
The saga of Mr. C (he wishes to remain anoymous) began long before he walked into EBCLC. In 1999, he left his home country for the U.S. on a tourist visa—and stayed here even after his visa expired. In 2002, he complied with a post-9/11 order that males from certain countries register with the Department of Homeland Security. Because his visa was expired, the DHS immediately detained him and started deportation proceedings.
Three years later, he requested political asylum. But due to the blatant persecution of homosexuals in his homeland, Mr. C didn’t tell his then-attorney, who was Arabic, that he was gay and HIV-positive. The Immigration Court denied his asylum request (originally based on his ethnicity and alleged political views) and sent the case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
Under Tam’s supervision, a sucession of four Berkeley Law students—Katherine Kasameyer ’07, Jacqueline Beaumont ’07, Elizabeth Mauldin ’09 and Lindsay Harris ’09—worked on the case for the next two years.
Motion to Remand
First, Kasameyer filed a motion in July 2006 to remand the case from the BIA to the San Francisco Immigration Court. Her motion argued that evidence of Mr. C’s sexual orientation and HIV status were unavailable at the prior hearing because of the client’s deep shame. She supported her detailed brief with declarations from three experts, who detailed the persecution Mr. C would face as an HIV-infected gay man if deported. Psychological evaluations from two therapists and extensive documentation of country conditions were also included.
Kasameyer spent many long days interviewing Mr. C and conducting research for the motion.
“One of the really nice things about EBCLC is that the staff is able to spend a lot of time with clients, which in this situation was very important,” said Kasameyer.
Kasameyer remembers at one point telling her client that “here, people respect others, regardless of sexual orientation. At the time, he couldn’t conceive those two things (respect and homosexuality) coming together.”
“Suddenly everything became relevant”
Students Beaumont and Mauldin continued the case during the 2007-08 academic year with a motion amendment and trial appearance, including the direct examination of a British expert on conditions in Mr. C’s home country. The immigration judge granted a six-month postponement. Then on October 23, Harris sealed the deal with a court appearance that won his asylum.
Tam and Harris knew they had a very strong case (homosexuality is punishable by death in their client’s native country), so they were surprised at the level of argument during the almost four-hour trial.
“The judge and DHS attorney thought Mr. C was exaggerating and gave him a hard time,’’ Tam said. “Lindsay had to do a lot of speaking off the cuff to defend her client and advance our argument, as well as referencing various documents. She did a great job.”
Said Harris: “It was like first year oral argument and evidence class, but real this time, with my client’s life on the line. It was unexpectedly intense. Suddenly everything became relevant.”
Harris is planning to go into Immigration Law after graduation, and considers her EBCLC work an “amazing opportunity to apply what I’m learning. It’s the most worthwhile experience any student could have in law school, even if they’re not going into public service. Clinics and professional skills courses are where you get the real training.”
That training includes keeping a straight face in court.
“When the judge granted asylum to Mr. C, we were all very subdued because we were still in court. No one said anything,” said Tam. “We didn’t even smile. But our hearts leapt.”
“The verdict was a huge relief,” Harris agreed. And two minutes after Mr. C was granted asylum, she saw him smile for the first time. He told his legal team that they had saved his life. And after a lifetime of internalizing cultural shame, he thanked them for accepting him for who he is.
Harris is coordinator for the student-run California Asylum Representation Clinic (CARC).