Clinic Students Win Release for Afghan Client in Complex Immigration Court Case
With help from students in the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, an Afghan national who had been imprisoned for three years on a misdemeanor charge was recently freed on bond.
Second-year students Layla Khalid and Jordan Woodlief argued their client’s case at the Arlington Immigration Court and won his release in December.
“From the start, the case was an uphill battle, given that the client had been denied bond on three previous occasions,” said clinic instructor Sophia Gregg, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. The case was further complicated by his asylum appeal, currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
The client had fled Afghanistan to live in Pakistan as a child due to persecution by the Taliban, and later came to the United States on a student visa in 2015 to seek refuge when the persecution continued, Khalid said. In 2018, he was convicted of a misdemeanor simple assault with a 90-day suspended sentence, but was detained by the Department of Homeland Security at the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia for more than three years.
“Our client faced severe medical issues in detention, including contracting COVID-19, experiencing symptoms of PTSD and schizophrenia, as well as enduring physical violence from the prison guards,” Khalid said.
After being denied multiple bond hearings, the clinic filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which recently set out a new standard of review for the immigration court to consider for release (see sidebar).
At that hearing, the court ordered that their client be provided a bond hearing in immigration court. Woodlief credited the result to the “incredible work” of clinic instructor Jennifer Kwon, also a Legal Aid Justice Center attorney, and others working on the case.
With the bond hearing granted, the students got busy.
“Jordan and Layla worked all throughout the Thanksgiving break, filing over 100 pages of documents in support of the client’s case, and spoke to the client every other day for months to gather the facts and to prepare for the bond hearing,” Gregg said.
Another turning point, Woodlief said, happened when the students obtained records that confirmed their client was abused by Farmville Detention Center guards, and that an internal investigation absolved him of any responsibility.
“This fact proved to be very poignant to the immigration judge, who referenced the internal investigation in finding that our client was not a danger to the community,” Woodlief said.
Woodlief, who served as first chair with help from Gregg, argued at the hearing that their client did not present a danger to the community because he had a “robust release plan” and DHS had the ability to enroll him in an alternative detention program.
“We also argued that the court was required to weigh his prolonged detention in favor of release, as he had been detained for over three years and over 12 times the 90-day sentence for his original misdemeanor conviction,” Woodlief said.
Khalid, who served as second chair at the hearing, helped describe and design the release plan, and wrote the argument relating to why their client did not pose a danger nor a flight risk.
“I was also responsible for reaching out to all of his community members and friends to interview them about their relationship with our client and helped them write letters of support to the court, saying they will help provide our client with transportation, housing and employment if he is released,” she said.
The community support for their client, who is a prominent member of the Muslim community in Richmond, proved as strong as they argued. Though the students began drafting a motion to lower what they thought was a high bond amount — $30,000 — their client’s supporters were able to quickly raise the funds.
“I felt so incredibly relieved when I heard the news of his release and that all our work this semester resulted in a happy ending,” Khalid said. “I was really amazed to watch this community come together to raise support for our client; their generosity was very heartwarming, and they were all extremely grateful to have their friend back.”
Although their client is still subject to deportation, “he has very viable paths to relief,” Woodlief said, including a motion to reopen his case at the Board of Immigration Appeals.
The client has a pending application for asylum and relief under the Convention Against Torture, based on his fear of returning to his native country on account of his mental health issues, his religion and his political viewpoints.
“With the Taliban taking control, the changing situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a factor for his release because it became more likely that he would be successful in winning relief from deportation,” Gregg added.
Both students said they learned much from their experiences in the yearlong clinic, which is designed to educate participants on immigration law and allow them to provide direct representation to asylum seekers and individuals seeking release from immigration detention.
“I learned how much harder I need to work to become the attorney I want to be,” Woodlief said. “As we were preparing drafts of the bond motion and doing moot court sessions, I noticed how effortlessly Professor Gregg and Professor Kwon were able to craft creative and straightforward arguments. Moving forward in the clinic and in my time as a law student, I want to take advantage of every opportunity to present oral arguments in court and prepare novel arguments for difficult cases.”
Khalid said the clinic taught her how to have sensitive conversations with clients and how to be patient and persevere when hitting roadblocks.
“Instead of learning about the complexities of the immigration system in a classroom, we were able to experience it firsthand with real cases and learned how to navigate the system along the way,” she said.
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