Law students Tim Anderson, Hannah Spencer, Sarah Theisen and Dylan Wallace.

Law Students Help Venezuelan Family Obtain Asylum

Amid changing federal laws and policies, students in St. Thomas Law’s Appellate Immigration Clinic helped a Venezuelan family obtain asylum this spring. As third-year law student practitioners, Tim Anderson, Hannah Spencer, Sarah Theisen and Dylan Wallace argued to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) that not only did a lower court unfairly bar asylum, but that the ruling had procedural defects and should therefore be remanded back to immigration court. In a rare decision, a BIA judge agreed. The family was eventually granted asylum in March.

"We were overjoyed with the result," Spencer said. "After an arduous journey to the United States and a difficult legal battle in order to stay, this family is now able to continue building a bright future in the United States."

Anderson, Spencer, Theisen and Wallace, under the supervision of adjunct professor Elizabeth Holmes, began working on the family’s appeal in the fall of 2020.

“The family didn't have an attorney to represent them at the initial hearing before the immigration judge, so having representation for their appeal was their best chance of success,” Spencer said.

Their clients, a young family of three, had fled Venezuela to escape political persecution in 2019. When they arrived at the U.S. border, the husband and wife applied for asylum, but were told that their applications could not be processed. After two weeks in a holding camp, both were denied because of the recently issued third-country asylum rule. The rule automatically denied relief to any applicant who didn’t apply for asylum in the countries they passed through while in transit to the U.S.

The husband’s application was further denied because of the firm resettlement bar to asylum. He had lived in Ecuador for a period of time prior to reuniting with his wife and son to travel to America. Immigration officials determined that his time there qualified as being “firmly resettled” and that he wasn’t a political refugee.

When the family began the appeal process, their case was referred to the St. Thomas Appellate Immigration Clinic. The student practitioners identified that the firm resettlement bar had been misapplied and that there were procedural issues with the immigration judge’s ruling. The third-country transit rule bar had also since been vacated by preliminary injunction, so it could no longer be applied against the family.

“This case was important because it was decided unfairly, and the family deserved a chance to have the BIA see that and rectify it,” Spencer said.

However, even though the students felt the appeal had strong merits, they counseled the family that it was uncommon for the BIA to remand cases back to immigration court. In fact, Professor Holmes said that, in her 20 years as an immigration attorney, she could count on one hand the number of cases like this family’s that the BIA has remanded.

Still, Anderson, Spencer, Theisen and Wallace were committed advocates.

"The asylum process and the process of appeal is an unbelievably stressful and overwhelming experience for asylum applicants," Theisen said. "When you’ve spoken to the clients and discussed the possible outcomes of the case with them, you see firsthand just how serious these determinations are to them and their families. You feel personally invested and personally responsible for giving them the best shot at the safety and new beginning that a grant of asylum offers."

In December, the law students and the family learned that they had prevailed. Against significant odds, the BIA judge ruled in favor of the family and remanded the case to immigration court, where the judge who had originally rejected their applications granted the family asylum to stay in the U.S.

"It was an overwhelming feeling of relief," Spencer said. "I don't think I fully realized how personally invested I was in the outcome of this case until I heard the news and it brought tears to my eyes. I was just so happy for the family."

"I was grinning ear to ear," Wallace added. "It felt good to know that we had been able to help this family."

The students were especially pleased to see that text from their appeal had been used by the immigration judge in her ruling.

“The judge took the arguments we made and basically wrote them into her decision,” Wallace said. “It was crazy to read arguments I had written, explaining why the judge made a mistake, be then adopted by that same judge in her new decision.”

This past February, the law students were reunited through a Zoom call with the wife and mother they had helped.

“It was such a privilege to be able to speak with the client and to congratulate her on the favorable decision,” Theisen said. “You could hear the relief in her voice and see how much this meant to her and her family. Speaking to the client and hearing her overwhelming gratitude for the work that we did was a really moving reminder of the ability that we have, as law students and eventually as attorneys, to make a positive difference in people’s lives.”

“I will always think fondly of this client and the experience working on her appeal,” Spencer added. “Knowing that we played an important role in a decision that changed their lives for the better will always be one of the highlights from my law school career.”