Center for Immigrants' Rights teams up with PIRC

Every year thousands of refugees from across the world make their way to the United States seeking asylum. Located less than a mile from York County Prison, the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC) has become the leading source of legal services to immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security in Pennsylvania. For more information about PIRC, visit http://www.pirclaw.org.

Penn State's new Center for Immigrants' Rights has assisted PIRC with serving the most vulnerable immigrant detainees, including torture survivors and those with severe mental or physical disability. During the spring semester, students in the center worked with PIRC to provide legal representation for three detained individuals seeking relief from harm under the laws of asylum, withholding of removal, and/or protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

One of these cases involved a man from Mali who was seeking asylum based on fear of persecution by the government for his political opinion. The man, who has been in the United States since 2000, is being detained at York County prison and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His asylum application was filed in late 2008.

Under the immigration statute an individual is statutorily barred from applying for asylum unless an application is filed within one year of arrival in the United States. Two statutory exceptions exist under the general one-year filing deadline: an applicant must demonstrate either an "extraordinary" or "changed" circumstance to justify the failure to apply for asylum within one year. In addition, an applicant must demonstrate that the application was filed within a "reasonable period" given the extraordinary or changed circumstance that relates to the failure to file an application within one year. Many courts have interpreted the one-year bar and related exceptions rigidly.

Under the direction of Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, second-year law student Susham Modi set forth specific case preparation strategies in an internal legal memorandum which outlined the statutory and regulatory authorities, case law and secondary source analysis relating to the one-year filing deadline. Following the memorandum's analysis, the legal staff at PIRC prepared a final legal brief arguing that the individual's mental disability in the form of PTSD constitutes an "extraordinary circumstance."

In order to prove that the client’s PTSD constitutes a condition that falls under the "extraordinary circumstance" exception, a psychological evaluation was necessary. In addition to his legal research and analysis, Modi's case preparation included hours spent recruiting a psychological expert who was qualified and willing to travel to York County prison to evaluate the client.

PIRC's brief concluded that the psychological evaluation determined that the client has PTSD, an ongoing condition present since his arrival in the United States, and that the PTSD created a significant barrier in the client's filing his asylum application.

On May 6 Immigration Judge Walter Durling found that the client qualified for an exception to the one-year filing deadline and granted him asylum.

The analysis prepared by the students will continue to be useful for other PIRC clients who encounter the same procedural bar to asylum.

Clinic student Modi described the decision as "important for both the individual client who had been through so much in his life and, potentially, all future asylum seekers who have PTSD and understandably avoid applying for asylum."

Upon arrival in the United States, an enormous burden is placed upon the refugees to establish that they meet the legal criteria under U.S. immigration law required to obtain asylum status.

"The complexities involved in assisting noncitizens who are at the same time detained, suffering mental trauma, and victims of persecution cannot be overstated," said Wadhia. "PIRC works tirelessly to represent individuals in these circumstances. I am grateful our clinic could contribute in a small way to achieving asylum for this individual. I am also proud of Susham for enduring several drafts and discussions before achieving a final product that was legally sound and politically palatable."

Megan Bremer, the attorney on record and managing attorney for PIRC said this of the case. "The violent deaths of my client's family members and friends in Mali have left a deep impression of loneliness on him. In addition to PTSD, my client suffers from Major Depressive Disorder. Both disorders are exacerbated by his current detention and the process of recalling traumatic events in order to prepare his case. Yet he smiled at me the day before the hearing and said that this process was the first time since he arrived in the United States that he felt support from other people. He was grateful for all the students who worked to protect him from deportation to Mali. Hopefully, this feeling of support marks the beginning of a healing process."

On behalf of PIRC, students at the center also drafted a white paper on immigration detainees who suffer from a mental illness, with related recommendations. Students were required to consult with an array of stakeholders in preparing the white paper, which will be useful to government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, among others.

The Center for Immigrants' Rights is a new clinic at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law that teaches law students the skills necessary to be effective immigration advocates and attorneys. For more information about the center, visit its Web site at http://www.dsl.psu.edu/centers/immigrants.cfm.

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Last Updated July 22, 2015