ND Law Students Help Asylum Seekers Find Refuge

Author: Lauren Love

Esli, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, and his mother Emely, won the right to asylum in the United States, with the help of two Notre Dame Law Students.

Stephanie Torres and Christina Shakour, both 3Ls, helped provide Esli and his mother with free legal assistance through their work in Notre Dame Law School’s National Immigrant Justice Center Externship program.

“To have won a case like this is extraordinary and quite an accomplishment,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for NIJC and adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School. “This is a rapidly evolving area of the law and Christina and Stephanie crafted and articulated novel arguments to establish their clients qualified for asylum.”

Through the three-credit, semester-long program, students represent low-income immigration clients from northern Indiana under the supervision of an experienced National Immigrant Justice Center attorney.

“You watch the news and hear about the humanitarian crisis but you don’t really understand it until you meet someone who has experienced this sort of trauma,” Torres said. “Our system is much more difficult than the media portrays it to be and seeking asylum really isn’t an easy process to go through.”

Esli and Emely are two of thousands of refugees from Central America who have flooded the U.S. border. They left their country after Esli had been approached to join a gang but refused the offer. After receiving numerous death threats, Emely had no choice but to take Esli and flee. They left behind Emely’s mother and two daughters.

“I think the judge found it compelling that [Emely] had done everything she needed to do to get her son away from the gang,” Torres said.

After arriving in the United States, Emely and her son spent some time in a Texas detention center but eventually made bail and were referred to the NIJC, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

“We see a lot of Central American women and children living in Elkhart County in need of representation,” Koop said. “We’ve seen the increase in Elkhart County, Marion County and throughout the region in rural areas because people can afford to live there. But that also means they tend to be more isolated and lack resources.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ population statistics, the United States has seen a sharp rise in asylum applications from Mexico and the three countries in the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — since 2009. Because of growing gangs and an increase in violence, asylum applications from Central America nearly doubled in 2014.

Under Koop’s supervision, Torres and Shakour put everything they’d learned in four semesters of law school into actual practice to handle Esli and Emely’s consolidated case.

“We were nervous,” Torres said. “We’re students. We were afraid they weren’t going to take us seriously or that they were going to be afraid that their case was somehow not going to be in great hands.”

To combat their lack of practical experience Torres and Shakour put their preparation into overdrive. They spent weeks gathering research, writing briefs and formalizing their legal strategy to ready themselves for an impending court date. To share the workload the two split responsibilities with Torres focusing on the mother’s case and Shakour focusing on the son’s.

“I was exhausted,” Shakour said. “There were some weeks, especially over fall break, where this case was all we worked on.”

For decades, many of the Central American and Mexican asylum cases have been argued using the “particular social group” provision. Attorneys argue that gangs targeted their clients because they are young or because they won’t join a gang or because they are women.

“We convinced the judge that [Esli] was targeted because he came from a single-parent household, headed by a female,” Shakour said. “He was then targeted for being a gang resistor.”

The justification for Emely’s asylum was even more critical. In order to ensure Emely would not be deported, the pair had to prove that as the mother of a gang resistor, her life in El Salvador was also in grave danger. By proving that point, Emely would then have the legal standing she needed to send for the two teenage daughters she left behind.

“We were worried about that,” Shakour said. “It’s a lot of pressure knowing that someone’s life is at stake and literally in your hands.”

Today Esli and Emely are doing well. Emely found employment and Esli is enrolled in the local high school. The NIJC has filed a petition to have Emely’s daughters join them stateside but the request hasn’t been approved yet.

“He looked so relieved and less stressed,” Torres said of Esli’s after hearing the verdict. “It’s really sad to see someone at that age with so much on their shoulders and you don’t even realize it’s affecting them until it’s all over.”

*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects and next steps in their court case.