W&L Law Student Wins Asylum Case for Political Refugee

Lexington, VA Thursday, December 08, 2011


Elisabeth Juterbock '12L
It seems like an easy decision. Grant political asylum to a Congolese man or send him back to the country where he suffered unspeakable abuse in prison, where his family members were attacked and forced into hiding.

The reality, says Aaron Haas, who directs the Immigration and Citizenship program at Washington and Lee School of Law, is much more complicated.

"These cases always come down to credibility," he says. "It can be very difficult to ascertain whether what our clients claim actually happened. Immigration officers see hundreds of cases just like this. We have to have proof in order to prevail."

And proof is just what third-year law student Elisabeth Juterbock delivered. Following three months of investigation, legal research, and an arduous interview process, Juterbock was able to get political refugee status for her client. He is now able to get a work visa and move on with his life.

"I can hear it in his voice when I talk to him now," says Juterbock. "He has gone from having no options to having a path to the future."

Juterbock's client, who wishes to remain anonymous, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he worked for a non-governmental organization that helped farmers understand how small businesses operate. When DRC military forces stole money and livestock the organization used for seed projects, killing the villagers who resisted, the man reported these acts to the heads of his NGO.

The story was picked up by the media, and the government responded by putting him in jail, where he was beaten and denied access to attorneys. He managed to escape during a prison transfer and ultimately made his way to the U.S. The government then attacked his family, and those who survived fled the country.

"If there is any reason asylum exists in this country, it is for people like him." Juterbock adds.

The Immigration and Citizenship program, which W&L Law launched in 2010, took on the case over the summer, and Juterbock got the assignment when classes began in September. During the fall, she worked with her client to solicit letters and other paperwork from friends and family members abroad that corroborated his story. She also helped her client through the difficult task of recounting some very painful and traumatic events, a process that would be repeated during a lengthy interview with an immigration officer.

But Haas notes that the mere fact that bad things happen to people is not enough to establish grounds for political asylum, so Juterbock also had to prove that her client fit into one of five protected classes the government recognizes. In this case, Juterbock argued that her client's reporting of the military violence constituted a political opinion for which he was persecuted.

Juterbock and Hass were at the client's side during the three hour interview, which Juterbock describes as tough but fair, as the immigration office turned over every stone in an effort to test their client's story. But Juterbock knows that this is an important part of the process.

"For every honest person who comes in with a story that needs to be heard, there are many more who embellish the facts, so she has to ask tough questions," Juterbock said of the immigration official. "But she made the right call."

For Juterbock, who has focused much of her legal education on business law, working on this case was unlike anything she has done in law school. She plans to continue her work with the Immigration and Citizenship program next semester.

 "You can hear everything in the world about the burden of proof, but until you actually have to come forth and meet that burden for a client before the court, you don't realize how difficult and important meeting that standard is," she says. "It was an eye-opening experience for me."

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