UH Law Center’s Vail workshop provides attorneys with updates after “major sea change” in asylum cases

Clinical Associate Professor Geoffrey A. Hoffman, director of the Immigration Clinic, was a speaker on the opening panel with Magali Suarez Candler, left, and Lory Rosenberg, right, at the Joseph A. Vail Asylum Law Workshop at the University of Houston Law Center..

Jan. 11, 2019 At the Joseph A. Vail Asylum Law Workshop held recently at the University of Houston Law Center,  advocates learned new methods to help their clients after a recent Attorney General's ruling significantly impacted asylum seekers who may have been victims of domestic violence. The keynote address was given by former Board of Immigration Appeals member Lory Rosenberg.

The symposium, hosted by the Immigration Clinic, a part of the Law Center's Clinical Legal Education Program, focused on appellate advocacy for asylum seekers after the decision in the case of Matter of A-B- and other precedents. Matter of A-B- is a case that weakened the protections for asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence or gang violence.

"This is a tribute and testament to Judge Joseph A. Vail, who started the Law Center's Immigration Clinic in 1999," said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the immigration clinic, who planned and coordinated the conference. "We made the workshop very relevant to what's been going on due to the recent changes in the entire landscape of immigration litigation.”

The first panel highlighted the importance of appellate advocacy. Hoffman was joined by Rosenberg and Magali Suarez Candler, partner and founder of Suarez Candler Law.

"One of the things that we need to remember is to plan," Suarez Candler said. "When you go forward now at the immigration court, we really need to think that we need to go beyond the Board of Immigration Appeals. We need to be thinking ahead towards the Circuit Court of Appeals."

"Generally discretionary decisions are not reviewable in the circuit courts," Hoffman added. "There are some exceptions, with the main one being asylum. Even though asylum is a discretionary form of relief, you can still take a case like Matter of A-B- to the circuit court."

Speaking in an individual capacity, Rosenberg discussed the functions of the Board of Immigration Appeals.

"What's really important for immigration attorneys to understand is that the Board of Immigration Appeals is a creature of regulation," she said. "It's an entity that exists within the Department of Justice. Everything that happens in immigration law has to do with interpreting the statutes and in turn implementing the regulations."   

Rosenberg also addressed specific strategies for meeting the challenges presented by Matter of A-B-.

The second panel featured Ruby Powers, partner and founder of Powers Law Group, P.C., Susham Modi, partner and founder of The Modi Law Firm, and Josephine Sorgwe, a clinical supervising attorney with the Immigration Clinic.

Sorgwe provided a primer on the basics of asylum law.

"When we start talking about formal aspects of asylum law, that's when we look to international law," Sorgwe said. "The basis of U.S. asylum law is derived from international law, specifically the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951. When you look at our definition of a refugee, it's very similar to the definition found in the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951."

Modi emphasized the need for pro-bono attorneys practicing immigration law.

"It's super important to do this type of work," Modi said. There are a lot of excellent attorneys who will be happy to be a mentor to you, and a lot of asylum seekers cannot afford representation."

Powers referenced a number of tactics attorneys should avoid that might jeopardize an otherwise strong asylum application.

"An asylum decision is discretionary based on the adjudicator's interpretation of facts," she said. "However, an applicant can be barred from asylum eligibility regardless of other favorable circumstances in the application."

The next speaker was Ann Webb of the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work. Webb's presentation centered on psychological trauma as it related to respondents and their families in asylum cases.

"So many of our asylum clients have post-traumatic stress disorder," Webb said. "What you may not recognize though is some of your employees may also have PTSD. If you're always bringing in people to help translate or type up notes, you might be triggering some challenges for your clients."

In the final panel, Rosenberg was joined by former immigration judges Howard Rose and William K. Zimmer who discussed ethical issues in appearing before the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"If you have any problems or stipulations at the start of the hearing, put them on the record right at the beginning," Rose said. "Preparation is key. The more you prepare before that hearing, the less you're going to sweat at the hearing."

"Asylum cases are fact-based,” Zimmer added. “You have to allow the parties to develop the facts. There are many cases where an application doesn't look very good, but then you get to the hearing and the next thing you know it's a very compelling case.

“You don't know what you're going to get until you've heard the evidence. Anything written on paper about an asylum case is just part of the evidence. You need to give the respondent an opportunity to testify."

Additional speakers included Brandon Roche of Roche Immigration PLLC and Cortez Downey who led a discussion on community lawyering. Cara Wilkins, a clinical supervising attorney with the Immigration Clinic and Elizabeth M. Mendoza, partner and founder of the Law Office of Elizabeth M. Mendoza led a panel on preserving the record and research tools.

Click here to watch the complete Joseph A. Vail Asylum Law Workshop.

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