Facing huge odds, asylum-seekers find help at HLS

The following story appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harvard Law Today.

world_insideOn a night that Diego will refer to only as the night he doesn’t want to talk about, gang members broke into his house in El Salvador and killed his mother and older brother. Diego and his younger sister, Anastasia, barricaded themselves inside the kitchen, using a refrigerator to block the door until the police arrived.

A year and a half later, Diego, now 18, and his father, Juan, sit across from Albertina Antognini and Melanie Conroy, both 3Ls, in a small office in Pound Hall. Antognini questions them in Spanish, pausing to translate for Conroy, who takes notes on her laptop.

Diego, Anastasia and Juan (not their real names) are undocumented immigrants. They are seeking asylum in the United States because if they return to El Salvador, they say they will almost certainly be killed. Over the past two months, they have been telling their story to Antognini and Conroy, who are representing them in court as part of Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. The students are aided by Clinical Fellows Matt Muller ’06 and Jean Han.

“Being a refugee lawyer involves a delicate balance between being a lawyer and being a friend,” Antognini says. “In order for the clients to feel comfortable disclosing the personal information that you need to argue their claim, they need to see you as more than just a distanced, professional lawyer.” Antognini mixes serious questions with casual ones, asking Diego about the cows and horses he left behind and clearly misses.

Juan first came to the U.S. in 2002, looking for work, and settled outside Boston. For the next four years, he sent money home to his wife and three children.

But El Salvador was being increasingly overrun by violent gangs, and in 2006, Juan’s brother-in-law was kidnapped by gang members. When his relatives went to the police, a gang leader placed a death warrant on the entire family. Immediately after the attack that claimed the life of their mother and brother, Diego and Anastasia were given police protection. But a few weeks later, says Diego, the police said they couldn’t guard them any longer. Juan says he knew he had to go back to El Salvador and rescue his children. He knew it would be a long, dangerous trip through Guatemala and Mexico back to the U.S. border. He also knew it would be nearly impossible to cross the border undetected.

Juan, Diego and Anastasia were apprehended as they crossed into Texas. A Spanish-speaking guard at the detention center helped them fill out an application for asylum. Eventually, they were able to come to Massachusetts, where the Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program picked up their case.

The legal challenge in the case, according to Muller, is to convince the immigration judge that Juan’s family faces a particularized risk among the many thousands of El Salvadorans fleeing gang violence in their native country.A hearing is expected sometime this year. In the meantime, the HLS students will attempt to obtain work permits for Juan and his children.

To Conroy, Juan’s claim to asylum seems indisputable. “If you’re being hunted in your country just because of who you are, and your government can’t protect you, don’t you deserve protection from the international community?” she asks. But Conroy, who helped with two asylum cases during a law firm internship last summer, admits, “The legal issues are particularly difficult.”

Antognini says her experience on this case has convinced her to practice immigration law after graduation. When asked about his hopes for his family, Juan’s answer is simple: “I want them to have stability.”