UHLC Immigration Clinic sets precedent in South Texas case

UHLC students Ariana Hamilton, left, and Marah Friesen review documents with Professor Janet Beck that the three drafted for a precedent-setting immigration case.


Feb. 19, 2015 -- Fresh on the heels of securing the release on bond of two Central American families from an immigration detention center in South Texas, members of the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic were able to get another family released – and in the process, set an important procedural precedent.

During the fall 2014 semester, faculty members and students of the Immigration Clinic presented arguments before a San Antonio immigration judge in the cases of two mothers and their children, ultimately gaining their release on bonds of $8,000 each

After those two victories, another professor and group of students argued before a judge in a similar situation. In this case, they convinced the judge to make a ruling setting a precedent in the South Texas district.

Clinical Assistant Professor Janet Beck explained that the mother in the case had been stopped at the border and deported once before , making her ineligible under U.S. immigration law for a “credible fear interview” (CFI), in which the applicant makes the case that there is a significant possibility she could establish a case for asylum based on harm or death.  If she is found to have a credible fear, she can pursue her claim for asylum.  The mother was eligible for a “reasonable fear interview” which has a higher legal standard than a CFI. If reasonable fear is found, the applicant cannot apply for asylum, but may apply for relief that would allow her to remain in the U.S. and work.

This time, however, the mother had brought her 5-year-old daughter with her, and both had been held at the Karnes facility since August.  “Since her daughter had never been here before, her daughter was entitled to a CFI,” Beck said. 

While the Asylum Office and the Immigration Judge issued a negative reasonable fear determination for the mother, as expected, Beck was trying to get a credible fear interview for the child. At first, the Asylum Office denied the request.

But after Beck made a call to Anne Chandler, director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center and a former director of the Immigration Clinic, who was meeting with immigration officials in Washington, D.C., an interview was scheduled for the child. It was the first time a request of this kind had been granted, Beck said.  

“They were denying everyone. All of the children in this situation were getting denied the opportunity to have a CFI. When they gave this little girl a CFI, they had to give CFI’s to all of the kids whose mothers had been denied their reasonable fear (interviews),” she said.

It was late in the fall semester, however, and Beck had only one student at the clinic, Stephanie Huang, who was able to work on a brief before the hearing on the mother’s request for a reasonable fear redetermination.

“She worked very hard on the brief.  Because of her work, I was able to make oral arguments to the immigration judge in San Antonio,” said Beck.  However, reasonable fear for the mother was ultimately denied.

The daughter’s hearing for a credible fear interview was scheduled for Dec. 16.  Beck had been unofficially mentoring a 1L student, Dominque Villarreal, who asked if she could go along, paying her own way.  During the interview with the mother and child, the little girl began crying, so Villarreal took her in her arms to calm her down.

“That enabled the mother to testify, and the little girl got a positive determination by the asylum officer,” Beck said. A hearing before the San Antonio judge was originally scheduled for Jan. 13, when there were no students at the school. Beck asked for and received a continuance, which was granted for Jan. 29.

On Jan. 20, two 2L students, Marah Friesen and Ariana Hamilton, began work in the clinic. Beck put them on the case, where they had to start from scratch by poring over the files.

“They had to get up to speed on the little girl’s case and understand why she was eligible for asylum, but they also had to understand something about the mother’s case,” Beck said.

In the meantime, Beck was talking with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer at Karnes, who told her the agency would not agree to release the mother on an “order of supervision” – where she would be able to stay in the U.S. while her daughter’s asylum case was being heard – unless the judge agreed to set a bond for the little girl.

Early on Jan. 29, Friesen plead to the allegations before the judge followed by Hamilton who represented the woman in the bond hearing. They had been role-playing in the clinic at the Law Center until 10 p.m. two nights before, and drove to meet the clients at Karnes for the first time before the hearing in San Antonio the next day.

Friesen, an immigrant from Canada, said she is attending law school with the intention of practicing immigration law, largely because of the frustration she had experienced with the process.

“It’s already a difficult system to manage in a situation such as my own, which is not nearly as tough as someone who’s been through the harrowing experiences that would qualify them to be an asylum case. I felt really driven to help people,” she said.

Friesen said the judge considered the team’s briefs and arguments very thoroughly.

“This was a case of first impression. This particular situation hadn’t been dealt with before. It sets a precedent as far as how the (Department of Homeland Security) officers are going to behave in the future when they encounter this particular fact pattern,” she said.

Hamilton, who argued for the bond, said the judge was at first reluctant to set a bond for the little girl. But the team insisted they wanted a bond, since that would allow the mother to be released on an order of supervision. The judge ultimately agreed to set the lowest bond possible under the law, $1,500.

Hamilton said the mother, who doesn’t understand English, at first didn’t know what had happened. But when the other detainees at Karnes where they were appearing via televideo, began cheering, she began to cry.

“We put a lot of energy and time into it. It’s a really emotional case,” she said.

Beck said she is extremely proud of her students, and that through their combined efforts they were able to establish a precedent that will allow other children in that situation to receive credible fear interviews.

“I felt, as an attorney, this is something to battle for,” Beck said. “You fight for people. You do whatever you have to do, within the law, to get people relief. We don’t always win at the Clinic, but we always fight.”

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