ND Law students win asylum case through National Immigrant Justice Center Externship

Author: Denise Wager

Nijc Asylum 2020

Amid COVID-19 cancellations and challenges, Melvin Hydleburg and Zahraa Nasser, both second-year students at Notre Dame Law School, argued and won an asylum case last month through the Law School's National Immigrant Justice Center Externship.

At the beginning of the semester, Hydleburg and Nasser met with their client, a young woman from Central America, to build rapport, gain trust, and draft her detailed affidavit. Their client experienced persecution in her home country, was targeted by her government, and had been living in hiding for months before fleeing to the United States. She was traumatized and unfamiliar with the legal process.

Hydleburg and Nasser gathered evidence, interviewed witnesses, developed a case strategy, and wrote the legal brief in support of their client’s case. Days before the trial was to take place, it was canceled by the court due to COVID-19. It was then suddenly rescheduled two weeks later.

The students quickly pivoted, regrouped with their client, and presented their case on October 19 at a physically distanced trial at the Chicago Immigration Court. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge granted asylum based on two of the three theories put forth by Hydleburg and Nasser, and the government prosecutor declined to appeal.

“Melvin delivered powerful opening and closing statements. Zahraa expertly conducted direct and redirect examinations of their client,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for NIJC and adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School. “Asylum protections have been eroded significantly under this administration and winning a case is no small feat. The fact that Melvin and Zahraa managed to do it under these conditions is a testament to their diligence, commitment, and strong lawyering skills.”

Through the National Immigrant Justice Center Externship students represent low-income immigration clients from northern Indiana under the supervision of an experienced NIJC attorney. These experiences of working in a lead role with clients, lawyers, and judges while still in law school are extremely beneficial and gratifying to students, including Hydleburg and Nasser.

“I am delighted for our client and inspired by her strength throughout the increasingly difficult asylum process. It was humbling to represent her in safeguarding liberties that are often taken for granted,” said Nasser. “I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with NIJC in using my legal education to serve a greater cause, and to Lisa Koop for the mentorship and guidance. This was my first time in the courtroom acting as an attorney, and it will serve as a reminder throughout my legal career to continuously advocate for equal access to justice for all.”

Hydleburg concurred, saying, “I am very happy for our client. The case demanded a lot of hard work during an already-stressful semester, but nothing compares to what our client endured throughout the asylum process. I am honored to have represented her and grateful to Lisa Koop for her guidance.”

The photo above shows Zahraa Nasser, left, and Melvin Hydleburg, right, with their client outside the Chicago Immigration Court.