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IU McKinney School of Law's Immigration Clinic wins political asylum for clients

Linda Kelly Hill
Linda Kelly Hill


June 29, 2012

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Three fourth-year law students working in the Immigration Clinic program at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law this spring were instrumental in two people winning political asylum in the United States.

One law student worked on behalf of a young woman who was subjected to female genital mutilation and who, at age 15, fled to the United States rather than enter into a forced marriage with a cousin who was nearly 40 at the time.

Two other students of McKinney School of Law, located on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus, helped represent a young man who feared persecution in his native Zimbabwe because of his HIV status.

“The students did monumental work on behalf of these two Immigration Clinic clients which has made everlasting changes to the clients’ lives,” said the clinic’s founding director, Linda Kelly Hill. “These two individuals now have lawful status in the U.S.”

In a year, both individuals will be eligible for lawful permanent residency; they can apply for U.S. citizenship after holding that status for five years.

“None of this would have been possible had it not been for their acquiring political asylum, which was the work of the students,” said Kelly Hill, a McKinney School of Law professor.

Law student Zoe Meier, who graduated in May, worked with Kelly Hill on the case of the young woman, a native of West Africa.

The woman’s mother objected to her daughter being subjected to female genital mutilation, “but the ‘ceremony’ was performed by our client’s aunt, the sister of our client’s father,” Kelly Hill said. “Our client testified her mother had always prayed, ‘May God protect you from the knife.’”

With her mother’s help, the woman -- referred to as Fatoumatat N. -- fled to the United States when her aunt and father began planning for her to marry the cousin, already married to three other women and known for abusing them.

After the Department of Homeland Security denied the woman's initial request for asylum, questioning her credibility, she was referred to immigration judge Virginia Perez-Guzman in Chicago. Perez-Guzman awarded the woman asylum, finding her to be credible due in large part to Meier’s successful cross-examination of the Homeland Security impeachment witness, Kelly Hill said.

For Meier, the case was a test of her skills and commitment to immigration law.

“For the client, I wanted to somehow convey to her that yes, she was a client, but she was also a person whose future I cared about and I thought about through every moment of preparation for her case,” Meier said. “It weighed on me. I questioned whether I should really be responsible for her future as a student, and finally I realized that all we can ever do is prepare mentally, emotionally and with obsessively organized precision. It was an amazing experience to test my skills and confirmation that I loved immigration law.”

Meier’s client is currently studying human resources management and international relations at a U.S. community college.

Two other Immigration Clinic students, Serge Zaitseff and Aimee Heitz, also May 2012 graduates, won asylum on behalf of the client from Zimbabwe. Their client received asylum based upon his “well-founded” fear of being subjected to persecution due to his HIV-positive status if he returned, Kelly Hill said.

“In short, the judge declared that returning the respondent to Zimbabwe would ‘be a literal death sentence,’” Kelly Hill said.

“We were happy with the result,” Heitz said. “It was a rewarding experience.”

The client has been released and is now living safely in the United States. The victory was particularly significant as the man had been detained by federal immigration authorities for seven months because he was unable to pay a $3,500 bond set by the federal government.

“Ms. Heitz and Mr. Zaitseff were required to prepare and work with our client under the terrific communication challenges presented by his ongoing detention and transfer (without notice) between three different facilities in Wisconsin and Illinois,” their professor said.

Immigration Clinic students actively represented about 50 people during the 2011-12 academic year. Their work included representation of applicants for asylum, visas, Temporary Protected Status, U.S. citizenship and various other petitions.