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Seeking asylum: Guatemalan man gets another day in court thanks to Cornell law clinic

A 32-year-old Guatemalan man is getting a second chance to gain his freedom -- and possibly save his life -- thanks to the help of Cornell Law School's Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic.

In May, the Cornell team successfully argued that their client, a torture victim seeking asylum and relief under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, had been denied a fair trial by a California immigration judge. The judgment was overturned by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which oversees all appeals of decisions by immigration judges across the country, and a new hearing opens July 11. The client's name is being withheld for reasons of privacy, said Sital Kalantry, who supervised the appeal and co-directs the Cornell clinic with adjunct professor Stephen Yale-Loehr.

"These decisions are hard to overturn," said Kalantry. "The immigration court's mistakes have to be pretty egregious. The judge's decision would have sent the man back to Guatemala, where it is likely he would have faced further persecution and torture."

The case is being handled by a Los Angeles law firm in conjunction with Public Counsel in Los Angeles. Judy London, an attorney with Public Counsel said that in her 15 years of legal practice, she has never seen a case like this.

"It takes about two minutes -- one, if you have worked with Guatemalans who survived the 1980s -- to realize that the client's case is completely credible," London said. "Of course, if the judge simply bothered to look at his scars she could have figured this out."

The Guatemalan man's troubles date back to the early 1990s, during Guatemala's brutal civil war. According to the Cornell law school clinic, their client's father was accused by guerillas of being a spy for the government and, ironically, by government officials of being a rebel commander.

In 1992 the client's two brothers were murdered, and both he and a sister were later interrogated, tortured and raped by government military officials. He managed to flee to the United States and had been working here for 13 years when he was seized by immigration agents and threatened with deportation, according to the law school clinic. In 2006 he requested relief from deportation due to his prior persecution and the prospect of further torture in Guatemala. Appearing in a California immigration court without a lawyer and speaking no English, he lost his case and was denied asylum.

Cornell's Kalantry supervised Kristen Echemendia, a third-year law student, and Heidi Craig '07 in making the appeal to the appeals board. Reviewing court documents, they recognized that the immigration judge had violated their client's constitutional right to a fair trial. The judge failed to give the man a chance to object to the evidence against him and did not consider crucial evidence, including his scars from the torture and a psychiatrist's report that he suffered from depression and psychosis as a result of sexual and physical abuse. The judge also neglected to describe court procedures adequately.

Since the Cornell asylum clinic began in 2003, 40 students have worked on 20 appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals. The clinic has won about half of its cases, a far higher success rate than most appeals. "The clients of Cornell Law School's clinic have few rights, not even the right to a court-appointed attorney. Most are detained. Many do not speak English. If we are successful, we save someone's life," said Yale-Loehr.

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Nicola Pytell