May 03, 2011

Law professor, student help woman gain asylum

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An Iranian woman's desire for safety and freedom came true recently due to the efforts of an associate professor and a law student at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.

Cindy Galway Buys and Susan Burns represented the woman in a recent asylum case. An immigration hearing officer in Chicago granted the woman’s request to stay in the United States on April 11. The woman, not identified due to safety concerns for family that remains in Iran, is in her late 20s and living with relatives in northern Illinois.

Buys has been involved with asylum cases while at SIUC and as a private practice attorney in Washington, D.C. Buys, who is also the law school’s director of international programs, and Burns, who is pursuing her Master’s of Law degree specializing in international law and immigration law, represented the woman on a pro bono basis.

“I find my asylum cases to be the most rewarding cases I work on because you are literally saving someone’s life by allowing them to be given asylum in the United States,” Buys said. “Some of the students who protested in the demonstrations in Iran have been sentenced to death. It’s the kind of case that makes you feel good when you win and you have a really deserving client.”

Buys learned of the woman’s plight from a former client -- another Iranian asylum seeker who she successfully represented four years ago. Buys and Burns each met the woman for an interview in January.

The woman came to the United States on a six-month tourist visa last fall from another country, Buys said. The woman is well educated, speaks multiple languages, and worked full-time for an international company in Iran before leaving. Buys believes she will be a productive member of the United States.

Burns said meeting the woman helped her greatly in writing the legal brief. Burns assisted the woman in editing her statement to The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Burns also researched current conditions in Iran to get a history of that country’s political environment when laying the groundwork that the woman cannot return.

The legal standard in asylum cases is someone must have a “well-founded fear of persecution in their home country,” Buys said. People who are already in the United States may seek asylum on the basis of race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a social group.

The woman feared persecution by the Iranian government based upon her political opinion. She was involved in government protests resulting from Iran’s 2009 presidential election, and government officials identified the woman and her family as dissidents, Buys said.

Burns and Buys filed the brief and supporting documents in late February, and the woman underwent a background check. Following her interview with an asylum officer on March 30, the woman learned she gained asylum less than two weeks later.

The woman is an asylee for at least one year, Buys said. After a year the woman can become a lawful permanent resident of the United States, and can pursue citizenship after five years.

Cynthia L. Fountaine, dean of the SIU School of Law, said there is a large unmet need for legal services in asylum cases, and commends Buys and Burns for their “outstanding work in this case.”

“This work is another example of the many ways SIU School of Law serves the public interest,” she said. “In addition, providing opportunities for our students to be involved in cases like this prepares them for practice and helps them develop an appreciation of the importance of doing pro bono work throughout their careers.”

The woman was very credible, and through friends and family was able to provide materials corroborating her story, Buys said. The month between filing the brief and the interview is “record speed” in asylum cases, she said. Asylum cases generally take four to six month but this case was completed in about six weeks, Buys said.

“In an asylum case many times people flee the country without much in the way of documentation because they are in a hurry, are afraid, and don’t want to be identified as they are leaving,” Buys said. “Often times, a witness’ credibility is crucial to winning the case. It’s really important to interview the client in person to assess for myself what kind of witness that person is going to make.”

This is the second asylum case Buys has been involved with while at SIUC. Prior to coming to SIUC in 2001, Buys successfully represented clients from Russia, Guatemala and Nepal while in Washington, D.C.

This was Burns’ first asylum case and the experience was invaluable, she said.

“I don’t know where else I could have gotten the experience,” Burns said, who also cited the woman’s cooperation as a key factor.

“This was a wonderful case to start with,” Burns said. “She was very motivated, on top of whatever we needed to do and sure that everything was on time. Whatever documents we needed from her she got them to use immediately. I couldn’t have asked for a better client for a first-time asylum case.”

Burns earned her law degree from the SIU School of Law in 2004, and worked for the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office for a few years before returning to Carbondale. She also has a master’s degree in political science with an emphasis in international relations from the University of Illinois.

“One of the things that was so good in seeing the decision come so quickly is that she can move on with her life,” Burns said. “She’s not in limbo and fear of what is going to happen.”

The decision to seek asylum is not an easy one, and can be heart-wrenching. The Iranian government froze the woman’s parents’ passports, and her bank account is also frozen, Buys said.

“She will never be able to go back to Iran unless there is a tremendous regime change. She does not know if or when she will ever see her parents again. That’s very hard,” Buys said.

There is a need for attorneys to take asylum cases on a pro bono basis, Buys said. According to a December 2010 issue of Washington Lawyer, Ronald S. Flagg, president of the D.C. Bar Board of Governors, wrote that having legal representation has “a major impact” on asylum cases. During fiscal year 2010, 54 percent of people with attorneys receive asylum compared with only 11 percent who do not have attorneys.

“Our students are very public-minded,” Buys said. “I have students all the time who ask me about working on cases, volunteering and helping people in need. That embodies the law school. I am proud of Susan. She wrote a wonderful brief and she had the fastest success in an asylum case I have ever seen.”