BU Today

In the World

Finding Refuge

Reaching Out: LAW students offer asylum seekers free, often life-saving counsel

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This week, BU Today presents “Reaching Out,” a five-part series on the many ways that the Boston University community works to ease the hardships of immigrants and refugees in the Boston area.

Saide knew he would be next.

It was just after the 1992 military coup d’état in Sierra Leone, and two of his uncles had already been killed, one of them a major in the army. Saide had been a strong and public supporter of deposed president Joseph Saidu Momah.

Saide packed up his mother and four children and fled to neighboring Guinea—escaping just one day before his house was ransacked. But even there, the long arm of Sierra Leone’s rebel forces tracked him down. He was arrested, beaten, and released a week later. He was free, but he wasn’t safe. And so he planned a second escape. “I didn’t want anyone to know what my plan was,” he says. “I had to succeed or get killed. Sometimes I was convinced I’d get killed no matter what.”

Saide, who asked that his last name not be used, found his way to Massachusetts, and after other attorneys refused to take his case, he was referred by his niece to Susan Akram, a School of Law clinical professor and one of three supervisors of BU’s Asylum & Human Rights Clinic (AHR), which is run out of Greater Boston Legal Services. Akram and her students led him through a decadelong quest to obtain asylum status and a green card and to bring his four children to the United States. Saide’s new hope: to bring his mother here.

Saide is among the hundreds of people represented by AHR since it was launched by Akram in 1995. The four-course cluster, offered to second- and third-year law students, assigns students to help people seeking asylum and fighting deportation. The students also handle Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) cases, temporary restraining orders in Probate and Family Court, and other immigration and humanitarian cases. Clients are referred to the program by the nonprofit Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR), which provides pro bono immigration legal services, and several other legal service agencies with small immigration offices, as well as subscribers to an immigration law professors Listserve.

“For all of our clients, what’s at stake is their lives,” says Akram. “It’s not just a question of money or benefits. If we lose, people are injured or killed. That’s what we have to live with.”

A few years ago, Akram’s group saw mainly Central American clients; these days they’re largely African, running from war-torn countries like Angola, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Somalia.

“Wherever there’s a surge in conflict, we see it reflected here,” she says, adding that many clients have been tortured or raped or have witnessed the murder of parents and children. “These are people whose trauma will never go away.”

To best represent such survivors, Akram says, law students must build cases from the gruesome details of their suffering. “You need to know all the gut-wrenching details of what happened in order to bring the case forward,” says Benjamin Boudreaux (LAW’10), who worked with Saide in last year’s clinic.

Jennifer Klein (LAW’10), another clinic participant, says she had to will herself to remain professional as some clients melted into tears. “Clients relive it every time that they have to tell it,” she says, “but they’re willing to do that to stay safe.”

Beyond building a solid legal case, students help with other needs, such as housing and work authorization applications. Because there is a paralyzing backlog of cases, an immigration ruling can take several years, so BU students rarely carry a case from beginning to end. Instead, they keep precise client histories and hand them off like runners’ batons to the next generation.

Akram and two other clinical supervisors—Judi Diamond (LAW’74), a LAW clinical associate professor, and Elizabeth Badger (LAW’05), a visiting clinical assistant professor—monitor students’ progress, spending as much as two hours a week with each student to discuss cases.

“Clinical teaching is one-on-one teaching,” says Akram.

For Boudreaux, it was the opportunity to gain litigation experience that drew him to the clinic. “I went from knowing absolutely nothing about it to being able to navigate my way through the Boston Immigration Court,” he says.

For Klein, it was the chance to help people in truly desperate straits. Her efforts have already won the release of two jailed clients. “If this was how it was going to start my career,” she remembers thinking, “things were going to go well.”

Akram says she’s confident that all her students will be strong contenders once they hit the job market. “By the time they’re done with the year of clinic,” she says, “they can walk into a law firm, be handed a case file, and know exactly what to do from start to finish.”

Or they can continue to do the kind of work they have been doing. In Boston, a city whose immigration court judges are less likely to grant asylum than in most other cities (44 percent in 2009, compared to 47 percent nationally), AHR’s clients are well served. Two-thirds of them seek asylum—some get it, some are granted temporary status, some are reunited with family in a different country. But not a single one has ever been deported.

Tomorrow the series concludes with a report on the School of Education’s Intergenerational Literacy Project, which teaches English language literacy skills to entire families.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu. Nicolae Ciorogan can be reached at ciorogan@bu.edu.

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