Hussain Honored for Service in Refugee Law Internship

April 21, 2003
Varda Hussain
"Torture is much more widespread and persistent" than we perceive it to be, Hussain said, and in more countries than we think.

Second-year Varda Hussain recently found herself caught up in the continuing push to find the boundaries of the U.N. Convention Against Torture: Can a refugee fleeing a politicized village ruled by a paramilitary group unconnected to the government qualify for asylum under the Convention? Does a homosexual immigrant qualify for protection if his native country persecutes homosexuals? Hussain tackled such questions while interning for the Immigrant and Refugee Appellate Center (IRAC) last summer in Alexandria, Va., where she wrote briefs and helped immigrants and refugees facing deportation. She was recently honored by the Board of Immigration Appeals for her efforts at IRAC.

"I learned a great deal about immigration law, especially the current developments in immigration law because much of it was changing post-9/11," Hussain said. In the appeal of the homosexual seeking asylum, the case was remanded back to a lower court because of a previous judge's failure to give proper instructions to the defendant. With new immigration regulations speeding up the appeals process, sometimes winning on a technicality is a victory nonetheless.

"How can you make sexual orientation a protected class?" Hussain asked. "The Board of Immigration Appeals hasn't exactly been sympathetic to that argument."

Immigrants and refugees facing deportation have few legal options by the time they reach the Executive Office of Immigration Review in the Department of Justice (EOIR), according to Hussain. EOIR offers a pro bono program; when appeals reach the level of the Board of Immigration Appeals, EOIR refers defendants to D.C.-area legal aid services like IRAC, which in turn help write briefs in response to those filed by Immigration and Naturalization Services. IRAC also informs their clients about what paperwork is necessary to appeal the case.

"If aliens want to file an appeal, they are expected to figure out their way through a complex appeals process on their own," Hussain said. "Without pro bono help, the right to appeal can be meaningless since appeals are routinely denied if an alien misses one procedural step."

Several claims Hussain worked on based their appeals on the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which proclaims that torture — by definition instigated or acquiesced to by a public official or person acting in an official capacity — is illegal, with no exceptional circumstances allowed. The Convention also bars the United States from deporting aliens facing torture at home. The boundaries of CAT, as many lawyers call it, are still being defined. During her internship, Hussain learned how one could argue that domestic violence, if not responded to by the government, could be a claim for asylum.

At IRAC Hussain worked with immigrants from a number of countries, including Jamaica, Nigeria and Romania, and her fellow interns dealt with claims regarding India and Mexico.

"Torture is much more widespread and persistent" than we perceive it to be, she said, and in more countries than we think.

Hussain said the demand for lawyers to work on asylum cases is overwhelming, even in Washington, D.C., which has a relative abundance of pro bono services compared to rural locations that may not even have a legal aid society.

"It was depressing to see how many referrals we got and the lack of services in the D.C. area to cover these referrals," she said. "That was a harsh reality to learn.

"The need is so great for attorneys to come and help asylum seekers," she said. "It's much-needed legal help."

She added that refugee law is also a great opportunity for young lawyers because they get a lot of responsibility from the start, as well as direct contact with clients.

Hussain's interest in international human rights law began as an undergraduate at U.Va., where she wrote her thesis on human rights and political theory. After graduating, Hussain began a one-year fellowship in 2001 with a development agency in Johannesburg, South Africa, working on projects relating to refugee resettlement, AIDS and human rights, and education.

Hussain, whose internship was made possible through a PILA grant, praised IRAC's supervising attorney, Thomas Hutchins.

"He is an inspiring person," she said. "He encouraged us to take on as many substantive projects as we could this summer and pushed us to learn the law."

The case where the man sought asylum from the paramilitary in his village revealed how intricate the law can be when the basis of arguments against deportation depend on how courts want to define government "acquiescence" to torture. "This is a cutting-edge issue in CAT claims," she said. The case is currently pending appeal in the Second Circuit.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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