Immigration, Appellate Clinics Win Key Component of 4th Circuit Asylum Appeal

Stephen Braga, Jean Zhuang and Doug Ford

Stephen Braga, Jean Zhuang and Doug Ford stand at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

December 3, 2015

University of Virginia School of Law clinic students won a victory in a federal appeals court last week for a client seeking asylum from a potentially deadly situation.

Prepared jointly by the Immigration Law Clinic and the Appellate Litigation Clinic , Oliva v. Lynchinvolved a man appealing deportation back to El Salvador, where he fears being killed by Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a criminal group with international ties.

Third-year law student Jean Zhuang argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in September. Students who graduated last spring — Rachel Wade and Kelsey Bryan, representing the appellate clinic, and Sarah Allen, representing the immigration clinic — wrote the brief for the appeal.

"I was pretty intimidated by the red-velvet everything," Zhuang said of her court appearance. "But once I got to the podium, it really felt like one of the moots. I had thought through almost every question that could be thrown at me."

In its Nov. 25 opinion, the appellate court ruled that a previous decision too narrowly interpreted the nexus requirement for asylum. The applicant does not have to establish an exact motivation for persecution, only a connection and facts that a reasonable person would interpret as reason to fear. The government, however, argued that the man was being persecuted for another reason, Zhuang said. The case is now being remanded for further consideration.

Jean Zhuang
Third-year law student Jean Zhuang argued a winning asylum case in September. Zhuang said her current focus is environmental law, but that she sees parallels in the human rights aspects of environmental and immigration practice.

Students in the Immigration Law Clinic gain practical experience by working with multiple clients, and must handle at least one complex case during the semester. Zhuang took the clinic last year, and had previously worked as a legal intern on immigration cases for the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School. A native of Boca Raton, Florida, she earned her undergraduate degree at Yale.

Doug Ford , director of the Immigration Law Clinic, said a strongly written brief paved the way for Zhuang, whom he hand-picked to argue the case based on her experience.

"Jean's quick grasp of complicated immigration issues and ability to keep the client's story front and center while arguing the fine points of the law give her the qualities to keep winning such cases if she decides to go that way with her career," Ford said.

He said the victory also highlights a frustration clinic students may face: They don't always see the results of their work right away.

"This case has been with the Immigration Law Clinic for five-plus years and will see more appellate argument with the remand," Ford said. "Originally a student conducted the intake after the client and his local employer came in when immigration officials had picked the client up. Later, Immigration Law Clinic student Esther Cantor '13 took the case to trial and conducted an excellent direct examination of the client where the judge found the client credible. That judge ultimately ruled against us, but the finding of credibility was absolutely critical to the clinic having any chance of appealing and Jean winning the decision we have now."

Along with Ford, Stephen Braga , the director of UVA's appellate clinic, and Braga's students prepared Zhuang for her court appearance. The Appellate Litigation Clinic allows students to engage in the hands-on practice of appellate litigation through actual cases before various federal circuit and state courts of appeals.

As a result of the inter-clinic cooperation, Braga said their client now stands a chance of survival.

"This victory and remand literally saves the client's life for the foreseeable future," Braga said.

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