MSU Law School students secure asylum for client

MSU Law

For first-time student clinicians, Jediah Biddinger, ’21, and Nancy Haddad, ’22, the experience of joining the Immigration Law Clinic in August immediately challenged them to match the pace of professional practice.

The duo was assigned to the case of a transgender woman seeking asylum in the United States from El Salvador.

From Biddinger and Haddad’s perspectives, preparing for a trial in a mostly virtual setting presented fewer obstacles than the barriers built into the immigration system itself.

“In conversations leading up to the trial, I wasn’t confident that we would win — even though our client’s case was very strong — in large part because the asylum process has become increasingly difficult in recent years and rules have been changed to make it harder for asylum clients to win,” Biddinger said. “In my view, the deck is stacked against people.

“Despite the fact that our client had a strong case and has been through tremendous difficulty, I felt like we had to defeat the odds.”

At the trial on Dec. 4 in Detroit, a new experience for both Biddinger and Haddad, they were able to meet their client for the first time in person and solidify the connection and rapport that they had worked so hard to establish over the last several months via Zoom. As they argued her case in court, Biddinger and Haddad paid close attention to Immigration Judge Jennifer Gorland’s responses.

When closing arguments concluded, Gorland announced that she was ready to give her decision.

“We were expecting the decision to come 30 to 45 days after the trial because it’s not common for them to give you the decision the day of the trial,” Haddad explained. “The entire time the decision was being told to her by the judge, our client had her eyes shut, like a little kid who doesn’t want to be where they’re at and they close their eyes because if they close them tight enough then it’s not real.

“The judge’s oral opinion was 10-15 minutes long and our client had her eyes shut the entire time.”

When the judge announced her ruling in favor of their client, the energy of the room immediately shifted, Biddinger said.

“I just felt like it was the end of a long journey for our client. The moment when her eyes closed for the decision and stayed closed, I could feel the emotion coming off her,” he said. “It was gratifying to know that we played a part in bringing the client to that moment where she feels safe finally, able to stay here in the United States.”

With their first trial a success, Biddinger and Haddad celebrated for their client. However, as they prepare to take more cases to trial in the coming weeks for the Immigration Law Clinic, the reality of knowing that this isn’t the result for everyone weighs heavy on their minds.

“I feel more prepared in that I know what to expect, but the uncertainty doesn’t go away. The United States has complete discretion of who to give asylum to. You don’t really have a right to it, even if you have the most compelling case,” Biddinger explained. “For both of us, in my eyes and Nancy’s eyes, our upcoming clients — no doubt — should win.

“They have an absolute need to be here in the United States, but you never know what a judge will decide.”

Prof. Veronica Thronson noted “immigration and asylum laws are incredibly complex, and the stakes are often life and death.

“The work that the students do is even more important because asylum applicants are not provided with an attorney to represent them in immigration court,” she said. “These two students, like many students before and many students to come have truly changed someone’s life through their work.”

Biddinger added: “I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about refugees and asylum seekers and it’s unfortunate because people fleeing persecution are some of the most kind, courageous, and deserving people, and our client is no exception to that. The opportunity to meet her and hear her story and see her come to a place of safety here in the United States is incredibly gratifying.”

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