CARES Students Win Asylum for LGBT Russian Client

CARES Clinic
Fall 2013 CARES team, including Professor Michele Pistone (far left), Joseph Catuzzi '14 (fourth from left) and Michelle Majkut '14 (fourth from right)

Two students from Villanova Law’s Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Service (CARES)—Joseph Catuzzi ’14 and Michelle Majkut ’14—scored an important legal victory when they won asylum for an LGBT Russian client in November 2013. Their client, a gay man in his 30s, was granted asylum based on a “well-founded fear of future persecution” due to Russia’s recently enacted anti-gay propaganda law. This is one of the first known cases of a defensive (i.e. defending against deportation) asylum seeker being granted asylum due to the persecution of gays in Russia. Read The Philadelphia Inquirer's December 19 article on the case here.

CARES, an international human rights and immigration clinic, gives VLS students the opportunity to represent refugees who have fled human rights abuses in their home countries and seek religious or political asylum in the United States. Working in pairs, CARES students are assigned to represent from beginning to end one or more refugees in a court proceeding before an Immigration Judge or in an interview before an Asylum Officer.

“The most meaningful part of my job as a teacher centers around putting students into the role of lawyer,” remarked Michele Pistone, Professor of Law and Director of CARES. “The pedagogy in the CARES clinic is intentionally designed to give students autonomy over their own learning, the tools to master a new area of law, and purpose (saving a client from probable persecution). In this kind of active learning environment, law students build justifiable confidence in their abilities.  It is very empowering and enriching.”

Ivan (a pseudonym) left his home in Siberia in June, immediately before Russia enacted its anti-gay propaganda law. Subject to abuse and harassment in his homeland, Ivan fled in hopes of living a “normal human existence” in the U.S., describing life as a gay man in Russia as “only existing, not living.” He booked a 10-day “vacation” to Cuba, which has visa reciprocity with Russia. Ivan then flew to Mexico, taking a bus and taxi to reach the border. Using the compass app on his phone, he crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S., where he was picked up and detained by the Border Patrol. Ivan, who entered the country illegally and immediately requested asylum, was subsequently transferred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Facility at the York (Pa.) Country Prison.

Ivan’s case was referred to the CARES clinic by the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center. Catuzzi and Majkut, under the close supervision of Professor Pistone, began working on the case in August 2013. The students immediately faced their first hurdle, needing to find a way to regularly communicate with their non-English speaking client.  A fellow VLS student, Russian-born Igor Ponomarev ’15, volunteered his skills and time to serve as an interpreter. Each week, the three students made the 5-plushour round trip journey to York for meetings and court preparation with Ivan. A Villanova undergraduate, Ari Ratusch ’15, and her family also provided vital assistance, translating Ivan’s letters and legal documents.

Catuzzi and Majkut, who prepared and submitted over 700 pages of supporting documents, appeared with their client for a hearing before Immigration Judge Arthur in York County Immigration Court on November 20. After four hours of proceedings, Ivan was granted asylum in the U.S. and the government waived its right to appeal.

"When I saw the look on our client's face as he realized he could begin a new, safe, and free life in America, I felt the tremendous impact of our hard work," commented Catuzzi. "My wish is that this victory will provide hope to the countless people who are being persecuted every day, especially other members of the LGBT community in Russia." 

"As the Immigration Judge issued his decision in granting asylum, I must admit I teared up while sitting alongside my colleague Joe and our client because the months of hard work and dedication in advocating for our client had not simply paid off, but we had truly changed the life of a man who came to the United States with nothing but the hope of a better future,” Majkut said. “And so the ability to give another person back a basic human right—the right to freely live as a gay man without fear of the harm caused by his peers, his community and even his own government—is the greatest accomplishment I could have made while in law school."

“When students are representing a real client who faces potential torture, beatings, or other forms of persecution if returned home, students understand how the law works in real life,” continued Professor Pistone. “As Americans, we often forget that our founding fathers fought so that we could have certain freedoms.  Our clients help us to remember what this county stands for and lets us celebrate the freedoms that our country represents.”

Deeply committed to their client’s well-being, Catuzzi, Majkut and Ponomarev worked tirelessly upon Ivan’s release to secure him housing and to connect him with HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization that protects refugees and assists them during the resettlement process. They also rallied support from the Law School and greater University communities to collect the essentials--everything from clothing to housewares--needed for Ivan to begin his new life in the U.S. Catuzzi and Majkut went beyond their work requirements for the clinic, each dedicating over 600 hours to assisting Ivan since taking on the case just four months ago. Ponomarev, who received no academic credit or compensation for his translation services, volunteered more than 100 hours of his time to assist Ivan.

Every semester the work of CARES students results in saving the lives of their clients and reuniting them with family members. Since its creation in 2000, CARES has represented and won asylum for more than 125 refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zimbabwe.