Genesis Aguirre Guerra, Claudia Cuesta Garibay, Assoc. Dean Lindsay M. Harris, Elisa Ruano Velasques, Francisca Perez

Earlier this month, students in the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law) Immigration and Human Rights Clinic prevailed in immigration court, securing asylum protection for a Salvadoran family of six.  

This family fled El Salvador after a powerful transnational criminal organization (often known as a “mara” or “gang”) started to extort the father, an electrician by trade, threatening him with death if he did not collaborate with them. A different gang had previously targeted the family and killed their beloved nephew for trying to protect them. The father went into hiding for months after gangs forced him to witness a brutal and torturous murder.  

Eventually, he left with his 8-year-old daughter, whom the gang also specifically threatened. He hoped the rest of the family would be safe, but after around 10 months, the same gang returned for his wife and youngest children, invading their home and threatening them with guns. The mother and the two young children fled El Salvador but were forced to remain in Mexico while seeking asylum pursuant to a Trump Administration policy.  

During that time, a cartel kidnapped and held the mother and young children for ransom, denying them food and water.  The gang only released them after eight days when the father – already living in the U.S. – was able to pay several thousand dollars in ransom. After more than a year and half, the mother and the kids were finally paroled into the U.S. when the Biden Administration temporarily suspended “Remain in Mexico,” no longer forcing asylum seekers to await adjudication of their U.S. immigration court claims on the other side of the border.  

The case was legally challenging due to the convoluted evolution of asylum cases in the Fourth Circuit, particularly involving gang targeting. The students had to carefully engineer legal claims and relief for this family. Clinic students and 3Ls Claudia Cuesta Garibay and Elisa Ruano Velasquez worked diligently throughout the semester to prepare detailed client declarations and witness statements for family members still in El Salvador as well as working with a country conditions expert and a psychologist to prepare written statements in support of the case. The students pulled together voluminous country conditions evidence on impunity for gang violence in El Salvador and the deep corruption and interconnectedness of gangs with the government, police and judiciary. They then wrote an extensive legal brief, laying out multiple avenues of relief. Cuesta Garibay and Ruano Velasquez prepared extensively for openings, closings, direct and cross examination at trial. 

Elisa Ruano Velasquez, 3L, talks about Salvadoran asylum case

Their classmates Genesis Aguirre Guerra and Francisca Perez provided support with reviewing drafts of the comprehensive legal arguments for each client and portrayed the role of opposing counsel during two comprehensive moots for the case. 

The day before the trial, opposing counsel for the government reached out and said that due to the thorough preparation of the case, she would not oppose relief being granted. Specifically, she said, “This case preparation is incredible work by your students so thank you for including them in the email. The preparation really left no stone unturned either factually or legally, including among many other things the very detailed legal brief.” 

On the day of the trial, the judge echoed opposing counsel’s praise of the work preparing the case, finding the more than 700-page filing to be detailed, consistent and legally sound. Cases like these do not typically result in an uncontested trial.  

In the moment when the judge granted asylum, clients held their hands tightly clasped together, tears running down their faces, with their four children – ranging from under a year old to 13 – seated on a bench behind them in the courtroom.  

Associate Dean of Clinical and Experiential Programs Lindsay M. Harris said, “It was a moving moment, and the relief in the father’s eyes and body was palpable. I have worked on many asylum cases, and I can truly say with no exaggeration, this family would have been tortured and killed if [they] returned to El Salvador.” 

Since the trial, Harris and clinic students continued their discussions   about access to counsel, pro bono and low bono representation,  and systemic reform. Inspired to impact change, Ruano Velasquez, Cuesta Garibay, Perez and Aguirre Guerra all seek to practice immigration law upon graduation.  

Comments are closed.