From Detainee to Legal Wonk: Andrej’s Story

By Matthew Johnson, Florence Project Legal Intern

In 2013, for the third time in as many years, the Serbian government prohibited its LGBT citizens from holding a Gay Pride Parade. Hours after the government’s edict, the Florence Project’s client Andrej [name changed to preserve confidentiality], together with his then-boyfriend, exited the office of a Belgrade gay-rights organization. Immediately, the two were surrounded by armed men, blindfolded, shoved into a waiting car, and taken to an abandoned building on the outskirts of the city. There, Andrej and his boyfriend were beaten and tortured, before finally being released the next morning. Death threats followed, and Andrej soon fled the country to seek protection in the United States.

I first met Andrej in September 2014 at the Eloy Detention Center, where he had been detained since May. It was apparent from our first meeting that, while detained, Andrej had devoted himself to the study of law—not only had he filed complex and legally sophisticated motions in his own case, he was also assisting numerous other detainees in preparing their cases for presentation to the immigration court. During our subsequent meetings over the next eight months, Andrej routinely peppered our conversation with questions seeking information he needed to advise and assist others.

As a second-year law student and legal intern at the Florence Project, I was comforted by Andrej’s legal fluency; he was, after all, my very first client. After agreeing to represent Andrej under the supervision of Senior Staff Attorney Ben Harville, I developed a collaborative, horizontal relationship with my client. Andrej and I worked together to assemble evidence to support his claim, develop our legal arguments, and prepare his testimony for the hearing; together we climbed the steep and often unforgiving learning curve of immigration law.

Ben, Andrej, and Matt celebrate Andrej’s release from detention.
Ben, Andrej, and Matt celebrate Andrej’s release from

In April 2014, Ben and I represented Andrej before the Immigration Judge. Andrej explained to the court the devastating consequences of deportation: “Being forced to choose between hiding my sexual orientation and facing harassment, threats, abuse, and even death would be a defeat of my liberty.” However, Andrej never had to make that unjust and intolerable decision. Just hours after his hearing, Andrej walked through the gates of the Eloy Detention Center, a free person for the first time in some 13 months. A few days later, Andrej joined his brother in New York City and called his mother in Serbia to deliver the good news; the judge had withheld his deportation and he would not be forcibly returned to Serbia to face further persecution.

Throughout his time in detention, Andrej remained concerned not only with his own safety, but also with achieving the goal that people “be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation, and that gay people have the right to live and express themselves without fear.” Shortly after his release, Andrej called to say that he had begun to volunteer for a New-York-based legal services organization, putting his personal experience and legal acumen to use in assisting other LGBT immigrants. The ethos embodied by Andrej—that our own liberation is inextricably tied to that of others—guides the work of the Florence Project. Nowhere is that principle more perfectly represented than in the many Florence Project clients, just like Andrej, who go on to support others who have fled violence, and who face the threat of additional violence in the form of detention and deportation.