Fresh Start: Students help immigrants gain their asylum in U.S.

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The most moving and surreal experience for University of Detroit Mercy School of Law May graduate Krissy Slaney was visiting the famed Roxham Road, a heavily trodden dirt path near the tiny village of Champlain in upstate New York, and a potential path for asylum seekers to cross from the United States into the province of Quebec, Canada. Many of the thousands trying this northern border route fear deportation under the current administration’s tight immigration policies—and would rather face arrest in Canada, a country with markedly more sympathetic policies towards immigrants, and generally with a faster time frame to handle cases.   

“I’ll never forget what it felt like to stare across that border—marked with an orange post in the ground and a ‘Road Closed’ sign—and feel the sense of sadness for those who had to make the illegal crossing,” says Slaney. “I also felt determination to help those in need. For me, visiting this site was a ‘wake-up’ as to what I could do with my law degree to help those in need.”     

A Canadian native from Newfoundland, Slaney studied both sides of the border in the Dual JD program offered by the University of Detroit Mercy and University of Windsor law schools. The ease with which she could move between the two countries is in stark contrast to the clients she has helped in the school’s Immigration Law Clinic.   

Slaney’s passion for immigration law started while studying abroad in undergrad and witnessing the struggles people faced by immigrants.  And working in the Detroit Mercy Law Immigration Law Clinic with Professor Alex Vernon, she knew she had found her calling.     

“The people and stories one comes across are unbelievable—sometimes heartbreaking, but often result in stories of success and resilience, which are so inspiring,” she says.   

A father with four children showed up a year ago at the Immigration Law Clinic with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The man’s wife was in a Detroit hospital suffering complications from serious injuries sustained in her native country.    

Reaching out to the local community, Vernon secured clothes, food, friendship and housing for the family at Central United Methodist Church, a noted Sanctuary Church with a storied social justice tradition. Many other community members and organizations came forward with assistance.   

The family had sought asylum in Canada, but been turned away at the border because of the “Safe Third Country” agreement between Canada and the United States, which requires most refugees apply for protection in the first of these countries they arrive in. The family then sought asylum in the United States.     

Over the next two years, several Detroit Mercy Law students worked under the direction of Professor Vernon to prepare and file paperwork and gather evidence for an asylum case.    

This past January, Slaney—who also has visited asylum detainees in jails to interview them—was successful in obtaining an unopposed grant of asylum for the entire family.    

“I’ll never forget the feeling of waiting for the decision to be rendered and the sudden outpour of emotions from my clients after hearing the application for asylum was approved,” Slaney says. “I, too, cried after hearing the judge’s decision. I was proud of myself for working so hard, but the hard work seemed to be such a small price to pay for this family to obtain asylum and get to live a great life here in the USA. Today, they’re doing well and adjusting to their new lives.”

In another success story for the Clinic, 3L student Kourtney Lovett helped the widow of a U.S. veteran obtain permanent residency after more than a decade of immigration limbo. Lovett spent significant time working with the client dealing with serious health issues preparing her for an interview where case was granted.   

Clinic graduate Elona Asimetaj, who continues to volunteer with the clinic, recently obtained a grant of permanent residency for a victim of domestic abuse who had sought help after having been arrested and detained at a court appearance.    

A Canadian native, Asimetaj has travelled to Roxham Road and has represented an African asylum seeker detained in the U.S. after having been sent back from the Canadian border pursuant to the Safe Third Country agreement.    

“Sadly, that case did not end up well but we learned a lot about the hard realities of immigration detention,” says Clinical Coordinator Rebecca Simkins Nowak.   

“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to expose my students to so many of the pressing issues of the day that come up in the cases we take on,” Vernon says. “It’s really satisfying to see the lights turn on, to see them realizing they have what it takes to advocate for people and navigate a complex legal and policy maze that seems to change by the day.”
 

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