Aided by Cornell legal clinic, Ghana native rebuilding life in US

More than four years after surviving an attack by a mob that believed he was gay, a Ghanaian man recently won asylum in the United States with help from partners including Cornell Law School students and faculty. 

“It’s great news,” said Adam Kassner, J.D. ’16, who worked on the case as part of the Law School’s Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic. “It’s an instance of justice in a system that’s becoming increasingly difficult for asylum applicants.” 

As third-year law students, Kassner and Eunice Leong, J.D. ’16, under the supervision of clinic co-director Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice, drafted an appeal of a California immigration judge’s ruling against asylum. 

Though the appeal was unsuccessful, it laid the foundation for later victories in federal appeals court and finally before a New York immigration judge, who granted asylum in August. 

“The groundwork was there from Cornell,” said Claire Thomas, director of the Asylum Clinic at New York Law School, which handled the case’s final phase. “The client is thrilled.” 

Identified in court records by the initials “M.A.,” the client’s trouble began with a visit to a friend’s home in Accra, Ghana, in May 2015. They were awakened by a gang of young men banging on the door. 

Led by a local imam, the gang believed that M.A. – then 31 and a married father of one child – and his male friend were gay, and broke down the door. 

M.A. later testified that he was beaten with sticks by more men than he could count before managing to flee through a window, “running for my life.” His friend was killed. 

Within two days, his brother paid for him to fly to Turkey and then Ecuador, beginning a two-month journey through nine countries spanning four continents. He crossed the border from Tijuana, Mexico, on July 14, 2015, applied for asylum and was detained in California. 

That December, an immigration judge ruled that M.A., who then had no legal representation, could relocate to another part of Ghana without fear of persecution. 

That’s where Cornell entered the picture. After a referral from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., Yale-Loehr took on the case’s appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an administrative tribunal. 

Started in 2003, the Law School’s Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic wins about half of its cases – well above the national rate, Yale-Loehr said. 

“It’s a stacked deck against an asylum seeker, particularly if they don’t have an attorney to represent them,” Yale-Loehr said. “We’re glad that our clinic here at Cornell Law School can represent at least a few people each year, but it’s like putting your finger in a dike.” 

The clinic has about a half-dozen active cases. 

Kassner and Leong researched M.A.’s case and wrote an appeal brief arguing that the immigration judge had made several mistakes. 

First, they said, the judge had mischaracterized M.A. as part of a social group of people “sympathetic to gay individuals.” Though M.A. does not identify as gay, the students presented evidence that the gang had targeted him because it believed he was gay – because of his “imputed homosexuality,” in legal terms. 

In addition, the Cornell team argued, the judge had not adequately acknowledged Ghana’s homophobic culture. Homosexual acts are illegal there. Police are known to be unhelpful to the LGBT community, sometimes reportedly engaging in extortion. 

As a result, the Cornell law students asserted, M.A. could not reasonably relocate to another city in Ghana, a country roughly the size of Oregon, without being tracked down and persecuted. His decision not to report the attack to police and hasty flight from his brother’s home, a few hours from Accra, underscored those realities. 

The BIA denied the appeal. 

Another lawyer took the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with M.A. The federal court returned the matter to an immigration judge in New York, where M.A., after eight months of detention, had been released on bail to live with a childhood acquaintance in the Bronx. 

New York Law School’s student-faculty team represented M.A. at the trial in New York, adding new evidence about the attack’s leader and the friend who was killed. The judge granted asylum, a ruling the Justice Department did not challenge. 

As an “asylee,” M.A. can apply for a green card in a year, and to become a naturalized citizen five years after that. 

Kassner, now corporate counsel for a San Francisco-based technology startup, said the case provided a valuable opportunity to apply his coursework while still a law student, working with “a real client with a lot on the line.” 

“It was a tremendous experience that really helped me grow as a lawyer,” said Kassner, who continued to work on immigration cases pro bono in his previous position at the New York law firm Latham and Watkins. 

Yale-Loehr said M.A.’s case illustrates the complexity of asylum law and the immense obstacles that face so many applicants, most of whom have no legal representation in a system strained by massive caseloads. 

“It’s always great to see that one of our clients has won asylum and can move on with their lives,” he said. “It takes a village to win asylum.”

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Rachel Rhodes