Achieving Empowerment: BU Law Students Find More Than Just New Lives for Their Clients

Students in the Immigrants' Rights Clinic help a transgender teen, Algerian family seeking asylum

Two people ride together on the T in downtown Boston. One has long brown hair and glasses and balances a purse and manilla folder on her lap. The other has short black hair, sports a leather jacket and fidgets nervously, tapping her feet and clasping hands wearing fingerless gloves. She laughs as the two chat in Spanish. Things are going well for her. She has recently been granted asylum in the U.S., and the two are traveling to an office downtown to finish up with some of the formalities.

Alejandra came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2012 by way of a “coyote,” or smuggler, as many asylum-seekers do. She came to escape the sexual and physical abuse she faced at home, not only from the gangs in El Salvador, but also from members of her own family. Sexual minorities are not well tolerated in the machismo culture of many Central American countries, and Alejandra, a male-to-female transgender person, hoped to find a better life in the U.S. She was fortunate enough to wind up in Boston, where she began working with Elena Noureddine ('14), the law student assigned to her case through BU Law’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

Seeing the two of them together on the train, you can tell they have become close. Alejandra was frequently depressed when they first began working on her case and says that Noureddine really helped her to get through that period.

“She was more than an attorney to me,” she says. “She was always there, attentive to how I felt, encouraging me and saying that everything would turn out well.”

“It was an incredible experience,” says Noureddine, who felt lucky to have been able to work on Alejandra’s case from her very first intake all the way through to the end.

Originally from Cuba, Noureddine immigrated to the U.S. herself as a child. “The immigration process as I remember it has always been very complicated,” she says. “I know my mom had to do it on her own, so I definitely feel like that influenced me. I realized from a very young age that people were really lost and receiving really bad help from overworked agencies.”

Noureddine says she thinks her Spanish language skills have been incredibly helpful to her in this kind of work. “When clients have very sensitive issues, it's nice not to have to have someone else in the room to interpret,” she says. “With Alejandra it was really helpful to me because she texted me all the time in Spanish, and I was able to text back to her instantly. It just made our relationship easier than it would have otherwise been.”

Being able to work with actual clients and learn how to build relationships with them is very helpful for many who take part in the clinic. But student attorneys working with transgender asylum-seekers in particular encounter a whole host of additional issues and unique, real-world circumstances that challenge their attorney-client relationship skills.

“Sometimes people aren’t as aware of [the issues transgenders face] as they should be, so stereotypes play into it,” says Noureddine. “For example, Alejandra was undergoing feminization therapy, but she didn't start until toward the end of our proceedings, so sometimes we were concerned that people weren't going to perceive her feminine enough to be classified as a transgender individual.”

“Asylum cases are very good learning opportunities for students because they're hard,” says Elizabeth Badger, visiting assistant professor in the Immigrants' Rights Clinic. “There are cultural barriers; there are language barriers; there are health barriers. And learning to overcome that allows someone to be a better advocate. The asylum cases in particular require so many different individuals working on the case—generally, a country expert, a mental health expert, a physician—and the student can learn to work with all of those collaborators, with all those witnesses to gather the support that they need for their client's case.”

Mohammed is another asylum-seeker whose case has provided ample learning opportunities for clinic students. Originally from Algeria, he fled with his family to the United States and has been working with students in BU Law’s Immigrants' Rights Clinic for several years. Mohammed was an engineer in his home country but was “falsely accused of being connected to organizations that were government opponents,” according to Badger. He was tortured multiple times and eventually forced to flee. One of his sons was just about to age into Algeria’s mandatory military service when they left, forcing the family to leave the son behind. They spent several years apart before Mohammed was finally able to bring his son over to the United States.

“The process that the government put him through in seeking asylum really changed him,” says Badger. “And he is now out of work, struggling to survive with his family, looking for public housing. His son that he was reunited with recently, I think it was difficult for him to see his father now in this different role than he had when they were back in Algeria.”

Badger says that the most difficult part of doing this type of work is that working with people who are indigent means dealing with challenges that can often be impediments to legal representation.

“We assist in any way that we can,” says Badger. “But to me it's not worth it to put in so much work into someone's legal case and then have it undone because their social circumstances and indigency wont allow them to either take advantage of the status they've obtained or become stable in their lives. So, we advocate with our students to take on a greater role than just litigating the court case itself.” Badger explains that this can mean anything from getting a client into a shelter, to taking them to the doctor, to enrolling their child in a new school.

On the flip side of things, Badger says that once the students are able to overcome these issues they “realize how much they really are able to do for this individual, for the family. And the clients, by working with them, are put in better situations than they probably ever imagined being in. The empowerment for both the student and the client is really amazing to watch.”

Reported March 20, 2014

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