PRO BONO PROJECT PAVES THE WAY FOR SURVIVORS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Katia, an indigenous woman from Nicaragua, met her husband, Orlin, when she was 18 years old. After just a month together, he became extremely abusive. He would beat Katia and their daughter regularly, nearly killing them on several occasions. He treated herlike a slave, like she was his property.

Katia reported Orlin’s abuse to the police, but they never did anything about it. At one point, Orlin laughed and ripped up a police report in her face, telling her it was worthless. Despite the severity of her situation, Katia continued to endure the abuse, because of Orlin’s continued threats to kill her if she left. Tragically, Orlin beat their daughter so badly one day that she died from the wounds. Katia, in immense pain, mourning the death of her daughter and fearing for her life, went into hiding for several months before fleeing to the United States.

The Florence Project has worked with clients like Katia for years. That is, women from countries where the authorities simply do not take domestic violence seriously. Recently, we are seeing more and more women flee domestic violence and spousal rape, asking for protection in the U.S. Under our asylum laws, if the authorities are unwilling or unable to protect an individual from harm from private actors, that individual should be able to qualify for asylum, if she can fulfill the other elements of the claim. But, until 2014, there was no legal precedent clearly stating that domestic violence could be a basis for asylum eligibility. That year, the Board of Immigration Appeals decided Matter of A-R-C-G-, officially holding for the first time that women who are trapped in abusive domestic relationships can qualify for asylum in the United States. But in the two years since Matter of A-RC-G-, it has remained difficult for women to win domestic violence asylum, cases especially when the women go forward without an attorney.

In the summer of 2015, Lauren Dasse, Florence Project Executive Director, and Nina Rabin, Director of the University of Arizona’s Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program first discussed the need for a push to increase representation in these cases. If an applicant has a credible case, it shouldn’t matter whether they are pro se, or have an attorney. But the truth is that representation makes all the difference in the world. Recent studies have shown that women detained in family detention centers, many of whom also have domestic violence or gender based violence asylum claims (like women the Florence Project assists in Arizona) are 14 times more likely to win their case if they have an attorney.

Lauren and Nina believed in the importance of increasing representation in these cases, and increasing services for women who have suffered and survived severe trauma and sexual violence. As we see every day, it is difficult for an individual to represent themselves in immigration court, especially an indigenous language speaker who has suffered and survived severe trauma and abuse. It is also difficult for individuals who are detained to have access to resources to help them present their cases, which is why the Florence Project’s work is so important.

From the initial conversation between Lauren and Nina emerged a joint project between the Florence Project and the University of Arizona to substantially increase pro bono representation in domestic-violence based asylum cases. Florence Project staff attorneys and legal assistants do initial intakes with everyone who is set to make an initial appearance in immigration court. Domestic violence-based claims are now referred to the U of A Immigration Law Clinic to do full interviews with women, covering all aspects of the case. With these in hand, it becomes easier for the Florence Project, with assistance from the Clinic, to locate the right pro bono attorney for the case and provide extensive mentorship to the attorney. At the same time, the Florence Project and the Clinic have held a number of successful outreach and training events, including in partnership with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Perkins Coie LLP, presenting on the basis for domestic violence-based asylum claims and reaching out to private attorneys who are in a position to handle these cases.

In 2016, the project picked up momentum, as pro bono attorneys have agreed to provide representation in 14 cases thus far. Most of the cases are on-going, but the early results are encouraging. Six of the women have been released on bond. Katia’s is the only case that has proceeded to the merits hearing stage, but thanks to the dedicated representation of one of the Florence Project’s best pro bono attorneys, Judy Flanagan, the immigration judge granted Katia asylum despite strong opposition from the government.

Ultimately, our goal for this project is to solidify representation for women with domestic and gender-based violence asylum claims, and increase protections for women fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the U.S. Women who go forward without an attorney face daunting obstacles to fully presenting their stories of persecution to the court. This on-going project will serve to ensure that women fleeing violent and potentially deadly harm receive the protection they legally deserve in the U. S., as well as set the stage for other women in the future who may not necessarily have the resources to obtain an attorney. While this project is still in its development stage, the early signs are very encouraging.

Thank you for your dedicated support, that allows the Florence Project to continue to innovate and serve more clients every day. If you would like to participate in this important project, either as a pro bono attorney or volunteer interpreter, please contact Charles Vernon at cvernon@firrp.org.

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