When the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law took on Shanteny Calvin's case, the clinic's students were skeptical.
Calvin, a Richmond mother of three who emigrated from Costa Rica 10 years ago, wanted to live in the U.S. permanently, but she had a history of criminal charges, including charges of assault and writing bad checks.
"Coming into the clinic for the first time and seeing a complex case like this, you don't know where to even start," said Anisha Singh, a third-year law student and clinic participant. "But then when you meet with her and you see how much she's changed and how much she's rehabilitated herself, you find yourself emotionally invested — fighting for her to get status."
Singh served as Calvin's lead counsel at a late November hearing before Judge Paul W. Schmidt at Immigration Court in Arlington, Va.
By the end of the hearing, the judge had ruled in Calvin's favor, granting her permanent residency status.
The clinic's biggest challenge was explaining Calvin's criminal record to the judge and showing that she has rehabilitated herself. Calvin's assault charges, Singh said, were the result of fighting back against her abusive husband. The bad checks, she added, were an act of desperation to try to feed her children.
"We put Shanteny on the stand," Singh said. "It was a very emotional moment — listening to her relive all the abuse she went through, talk about how she struggled to feed her kids, what she went through as a victim, what she went through in jail. And then how she just got out and was so strong, got away from the abuser, managed to singly support her children and just turn her life around."
As Calvin's friends and family watched in the courtroom, Singh described how Calvin serves as a clerk at her church, volunteers with the PTA, works at a food bank in Richmond and attends night school to eventually become a Spanish teacher.
"We were able to show how much she's changed and how much she's learned and how much she's become involved with her community," Singh said. "We had almost 15 people in the benches, just supporting her. Her uncle, her mom, her kids, her co-workers. The judge saw that she had a huge support team in the U.S."
In the end, Singh said, Calvin's testimony won the case. "Listening to her for an hour, I think, convinced the judge and even the trial attorney," she said.
Calvin said the Law School's Immigration Law Clinic — which worked on her behalf for four years — never gave up on her, despite her past troubles.
"This has been an awesome experience, having people who care, who are trained, who take their time, who go beyond expectations," she said. "You would think that people have limits to how much they will fight, but they never gave up. They were always supportive of me."
The clinic's efforts, she said, are giving her an opportunity to pursue her dream of one day becoming a teacher and owning her own home.
"It gave me a second chance to begin to be able to achieve the goals I have for life," she said. "We here, as immigrants, usually have limited resources. But there's hope because there's people like them who are willing to help."
The Immigration Law Clinic, which operates in partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center, typically has around 50 cases at any given time, with many stretching across multiple semesters. Most of its work involves administrative petitions before federal agencies, but inevitably some of these cases end up in Immigration Court.
Doug Ford, the clinic's director, said the clinic is helping train future lawyers, giving them hands-on experiences, sometimes even inside the courtroom.
"On the one hand, the students take the doctrine and theory and make the law real for the client and herself," he said. "She must make critical judgments to make the principles concrete. For example, she must decide what does the clear and convincing evidence standard mean in this case? [Or] how much and what types of evidence are needed to meet the 'substantial harm' element of the claim?"
Ford pointed to Singh's efforts on behalf of Calvin as an example of the valuable experience the clinic can provide.
"Anisha had to deftly distill semesters of complex legal work where we had won interim appeals — the case file was about 3 feet high (or wide) — into clear convincing arguments for the court," he said. "She had to prepare affidavits, direct examination and possible cross examination of several critical witnesses. And most importantly, she prepared Shanteny to retrace clearly her very difficult domestic abuse, criminal history and jail time."
The clinic also provides a public service by assisting immigrants who would likely lose their cases if they proceeded without legal representation, he added.
"Through the partnership with Legal Aid, the students work on behalf of poor, often traumatized people with difficult cases that usually other firms or nonprofits will not take," he said. "Students are challenged to build the trust and relationships needed to represent people with difficult backgrounds."
The clinic's victory in Calvin's case was far from its only recent success story. Over the past two semesters, the clinic has tallied 14 victories, three of which were decided in court.
Lara Jensen, a second-year-law student and clinic participant, won a multi-semester case in October involving a couple from El Salvador who lives in Charlottesville.
The clinic sought to win legal residency for Jose Ricardo Aguilar and, by extension, his wife, Ena Miranda Franco, via a claim under the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act, a law passed in the 1990s that ensured an easier path for immigrants fleeing unrest in Central America.
For Aguilar, however, there were two key hurdles, Jensen said.
First, Aguilar had a couple of past convictions of driving under the influence. While DUIs are not an automatic disqualifier in immigration law, the convictions had to be addressed before the judge, Jensen said.
"Like many Americans, he had an alcohol problem," she said. "He realized that he had a problem in 2007 and sought help. We really wanted to demonstrate that although he did have these criminal convictions, they stemmed from alcohol problems, something which is unfortunately very common. But unlike many people, he took favorable steps to address it and has really become an upstanding member of the community by dealing with his problems with alcohol."
Aguilar, she told the judge, went through an alcohol education course and sought help from his church. He now serves as a deacon of the church, she added.
The case's second major challenge was that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flagged Aguilar's service in the El Salvadoran National Guard in the 1980s, noting that the country's military was known to have committed atrocities during that period.
The clinic interviewed Aguilar at length, documenting a full history of his service, including where he was, what he did and what his duties were with the military. Aguilar joined the National Guard when he was 17 and deserted after nine months to immigrate to the United States, she said.
"He had a pretty awful home life with his parents. He just wanted to get out of the house. And so he ended up enlisting in the El Salvador National Guard," Jensen said. "He did the training and then he was actually doing active duty and saw the horror of war. He didn't really understand the gravity of the situation he was in. He just wanted some extra money and to move out of the house. He realized, 'This is not for me' and he deserted the military. And once he'd deserted, he realized he couldn't stay in El Salvador."
The ICE attorney, Jensen said, did not present any evidence at trial that indicated her client was involved in any atrocities.
As Aguilar's lead counsel, Jensen, who interned at Immigration Court in Baltimore over the summer, said she had a good idea of what to expect, even though it was her first time arguing a case in a courtroom.
"I had a good feeling for what sort of questions the judge was going to ask, and how the hearing was going to go," she said. "But, that said, it's a completely different experience observing versus doing it."
In addition to the courtroom experience, Jensen said, working on the case also helped her understand more about how to assemble a case's record.
"This idea of building the record, getting affidavits from people, getting documents from El Salvador and getting documents from the U.S. government — you look at our record and it was probably 800 pages."
Yet the best part of the experience, she said, was helping Aguilar and his family.
"This is an incredible family," she said. "Ricardo's held the same job for the past 20 years. Ena is an incredibly warm mother and does a great job of raising their kids. They have three kids, two of whom are in college — one has almost a full scholarship to James Madison University, the other is graduating from Liberty University this coming May and then they have a 9-year-old son who's also very bright and participates with the Boys & Girls Club."
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