On June 21, 2022, Imani*, an Immigration and Human Rights Clinic client from East Africa, was granted asylum after nearly two years of work with the clinic. Associate Dean of Clinical and Experiential Programs Lindsay M. Harris and three 2022 graduates – Delali Dagadu, Loishirl Hall and Pearl Mansu – began working on the case in the Fall of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In preparation for the Spring 2021 semester, the Clinic began working on Imani’s case in late fall. Imani was forced to flee her home country due to incredible violence when she was only 5 years old, settling in a refugee camp without consistent family support. Life in the camp was not safe for girls and she faced violence because of her ethnicity. She found school as a refuge from daily life on the camp, where she excelled in her educational endeavors.
At one point, as a teenager, she returned to her home country to visit family and was brutally attacked and left in a burning hut because of her family ties and ethnic conflict. She returned to the refugee camp, eventually completing high school and securing a full scholarship to attend university in the United States.
Imani’s father, now involved with the military in her home country, is insistent that she return and be forced into marriage with a much older man. Imani is vocally opposed to forced marriage and to the corruption she sees in her home country. Returning and speaking out in this way would put her life in great danger.
In December 2020, Imani worked against the clock with Professor Harris to file her asylum application, just before the “death to asylum” regulations proposed by the Trump administration would go into effect in January 2021. Although courts later enjoined those regulations, Imani could not take the risk of her gender-based asylum claim being undermined.
In January 2021, then-second-year law students Mansu and Hall were assigned to work on Imani’s case. Both students had specifically requested to work on this case – Mansu as an immigrant from Ghana as a child and Hall as an immigrant from Liberia when she was just two years old. Both knew the immigrant experience in the United States and were poised to represent Imani with unmatched insight and compassion.
Hall said she came into law school with a vague idea of the direction she wanted her legal career to take. “The more I learned, the more unclear I became, until I took the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic,” she said. “This cemented where I wanted my career to go.” An immigrant herself, Hall described working on the case as “transformative,” explaining that she had previously “shied away from” sharing her own story because of “unfavorable” views of immigrants. Working with Imani shifted her perspective as she used her own experience to better assist her client. “I will always remember this case, not only because Imani was my first real client but because of her smile, her personality and her vigor for standing up for the rights of women so those who come after her do not have to endure all that she had to endure.”
Hall and Mansu worked diligently to prepare the asylum declaration, meeting with Imani weekly over Zoom. They also dove into the complex legal issues involved in the case around firm resettlement. Because Imani once had refugee status in another country, this posed a significant legal obstacle to her obtaining asylum in the United States.
Mansu reflected on the experience. “This experience taught me what legal theory could never teach me, that true advocacy is not centered on opinions, briefs and memoranda but rather on the client. I’ve learned to start, continue and end with my client in mind. Working with such a brilliant and bright client taught me that lawyers are not superheroes who have come to single-handedly save the day for clients. They are advocates who work alongside clients for the best possible legal remedy.”
In the summer of 2021, Dagadu joined the case with the Clinic. She worked to finalize Imani’s declaration and worked collaboratively with a medical expert, psychological expert and country conditions expert to support the claim. Dagadu worked with Professor Harris to build on Hall and Mansu’s drafts and craft the legal brief to support Imani’s claim. Dagadu and Professor Harris attended an interview at Arlington asylum office just before the Fall semester started in August 2021.
“It was an honor and pleasure to work with Imani. I learned so much from Imani by simply listening to her tell her compelling story of resilience,” said Dagadu. “She is a phenomenal woman. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of an amazing team of women who worked diligently to achieve Imani’s dream, a dream to live in a country where she can freely choose her own destiny as a woman and express her opinions without fear of persecution. Working on this case reaffirmed my desire to pursue a legal career in immigration.”
Following this there was a period of waiting and intense anxiety for Imani. After repeated follow ups with the asylum office, Imani was asked to come for a second asylum interview in April 2022. She bravely told her story again and answered detailed questions about her time in other east African countries and the ties her parents had to various groups in the region.
In June 2022, Imani was finally granted asylum.
“This collaboration is a wonderful example of what UDC Law students can do within our Clinical Program. Shirl, Pearl and Delali built an excellent relationship with this incredible young woman to craft a strong narrative for her that fit within the legal elements required to establish asylum eligibility,” said Professor Harris. “I am so proud to have worked with this team to obtain the necessary protection and stability for Imani to move forward in her life and engage in the amazing work we know she’ll accomplish in the years ahead.”
Dagadu, Hall and Mansu graduated in May 2022 and are now studying for the bar exam. Dagadu is working in private immigration practice, Hall will begin working with the D.C. Affordable Law Firm in August and Mansu is joining Reed Smith LLP.
*Not the client’s real name