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Over the past semester, Michele Pistone, director of clinical programs at Villanova University School of Law, worked with eight students (four pairs of two), who traveled to York County, Pa., to represent asylum-seekers. Each pair successfully represented and won asylum protection for their respective client. Pistone runs the Clinic for Asylum, Refugees and Emigrant Services (CARES), which provides opportunities for students to work with that population. The clinic allows the students to gain direct experience with the law and with client representation and also fills a need for a group that otherwise would not have had legal representation. Pistone said that two of the judges in York County noticed that 70 percent to 80 percent of those being held in detention were unrepresented. “They reached out to me for representation,” she said. She described the clients the clinic represents. “They are people being detained by the INS in York County because they came through the [U.S.] border without the proper documentation,” Pistone explained. However, the reason they lack the proper documentation is that they were “hurried, or fleeing, or fleeing their own government and could not obtain the proper papers ahead of time.” Upon arrival in such places as New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, they are transferred to county jails. According to Pistone, there were reforms in immigration law in 1996. “Congress mandated the detention of asylum-seekers who come without the proper travel documentation,” Pistone said. Rina Desai, a third-year law student who helped represent a Ugandan woman fleeing domestic violence, was surprised at the way the detainees were treated. “The people are kept in detention with other criminals,” Desai said. “They are not being held because of criminal actions, … but they are treated like criminals.” Desai described her hands-on introduction to immigration law as a rude awakening. Desai and her partner at the clinic, Kimberly Johnston, went to the York County jail every week to 10 days. Their case was particularly difficult because they were representing a domestic violence victim. “To get asylum, you need to prove persecution based on one of five factors: race, religion, nationality, affiliation with a social group or political opinion,” said Pistone. She further elaborated that this makes things difficult for women. “Women are victimized by private actors,” she said, “and they can’t get protection from the government. “The laws are designed to provide asylum for men who are persecuted in their country,” Pistone said. “Domestic violence is a cutting-edge area of asylum law because the courts are just recognizing the realities of women.” Desai said the case was tough because gender is not included as something for which someone can be persecuted. “It’s upsetting that you can’t get asylum because you don’t fit within a parameter,” she said. However, Desai and Johnston did manage to successfully represent their client. “We argued that she and her husband had different interpretations of religion,” Desai said. She said they were able to prove their client’s case on the basis of religion. Yet many of the detainees remain unrepresented. Pistone said that the likelihood of success in a case increases between four and six times if the asylum-seeker has representation. Pistone also said that this is not surprising since soon after an individual arrives, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sends an officer to determine the value of the claim. “[The asylum-seekers] are kept in detention even after it has been decided that they have a credible fear of persecution.” Thus, some legitimacy to the claim has already been established prior to the official hearing, where asylum protection is won or denied. However, because the detainees are being held in York County, they don’t have the access to lawyers that they would have if they were in a city. “It is difficult to argue your own asylum claim if you’re not represented,” Pistone said. Pistone said that this is part of the reason that refugees and asylum-seekers are sent to more remote areas. “It is a deterrence factor that Congress and the government wanted to encourage,” Pistone said. She said that at the end of all the hearings, she and the students discussed the idea that “this is the good side of America: fighting for political freedom and expression, much like our forefathers.” But she also said that “people want to come to the ideal of America, but then come and are put in detention.” Pistone explained that she has done research on the subject and said that part of the problem is that there is no incentive to move people through the system. The county jails receive money from the INS for the individuals they detain. Pistone said that the system can release the asylum-seekers on parole until their hearing. However, she said this is very rare. She also said that she has observed that when someone is released on parole pending their hearing, there is often a direct correlation to the fact that there is no bed space at the jail. Pistone said the INS benefits from this practice because it believes that the only way to ensure that an individual goes to a hearing is to detain her. However, Pistone said this is not true because the asylum-seekers want their hearing. “They want to come out to the hearing; they don’t want to live their life in hiding. That is why they are here,” Pistone said. Both Pistone and Desai agreed that there is a lot that needs to change within the law, but they also said that the experience for students is a valuable one. “It was a very rewarding experience to assist with real clients,” Desai said. “You’re not just learning from a book.” “It is a great, wonderful, eye-opening experience for them as law students,” Pistone said of the clinic. “It showed them in a very meaningful way how much of the poor don’t have legal counsel.” Pistone plans to continue the clinic and to continue the work in York County.

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