Clinic students secure asylum-seeker’s release amid global pandemic

Fleeing death threats in his home country, the Immigration Law Clinic’s latest client left behind one life-threatening crisis only to wind up in the middle of another.

After he was apprehended at the U.S. border and relocated to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the Pakistani asylum-seeker found himself in one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak. Ironically, it was the underlying medical condition that put his life in such great danger that proved key for the UW Law students who secured his release.

UW Law’s Immigration Law Clinic is operated in partnership with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), the state’s primary provider of immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees. Supervised by Immigration Law Clinic Director Christopher Strawn, the clinic comprises eight students who work on cases for individuals who would otherwise lack legal representation

This latest effort quickly evolved into a monthslong undertaking as the virus spread across the country, ultimately involving the entire clinic:

Paula Luu, Andy Paroff and Rebekah Ross served as merits hearing student attorneys; Nicci Arete, Dani Coony and Derek Tsang worked as bond hearing student attorneys; and Jeremy Olson and Zachary Rentschler served as TSO/habeas student attorneys.

Working to support people seeking a better life and just knowing that you’re making a positive difference in their legal chances — it really makes it all worth it.

The clinic students met their client in January after he had been denied bond by a Washington judge. Despite having family in the United States, he was deemed a flight risk, as are many other recently detained migrants. In many cases, detainees who have been denied bond have little chance going down that road again unless there are extreme changes to the circumstances surrounding his or her detention.

While the clinic had hoped a classwide suit filed by the ACLU and NWIRP might assist the client, the judges in the Western District of Washington were declining to grant relief to even high-risk detainees. So, working remotely and with an interpreter, the students began building an asylum case.

“We couldn't have predicted at the time that there was going to be a global pandemic, but that was the exact kind of changed circumstance he needed to appeal his bond determination,” says Andy Paroff, who served as one of the merits hearing student attorneys.

“At first, our client was having difficulty understanding the interpreter, we were also having difficulty understanding the interpreter, and we were kind of at a loss. I think at first the client was a little guarded, but by slowly working through things with him we were able to gain his trust.”

The students learned of an autoimmune deficiency that put their client at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Amplifying the risk, the crowded facilities in detention centers and prison environments create prime conditions for the virus to spread more rapidly.

The students pivoted to bond and attacked the case from several angles, working on bond evidence, merits, a habeas petition and TRO based on successful litigation around the country, all while maintaining close communication with the client. The clinic also looped in a UW Medicine professor, who evaluated the client’s medical records and supported the legal work with a signed declaration.

"We knew we had to take the soonest possible opportunity for the client's release, and this meant putting together our brief and all additional exhibits in a matter of days," says Dani Coony, one of the team's bond hearing student attorneys. "Luckily, our client's family was incredibly supportive when we reached out. This whole process truly felt like a team effort with the client, his family, the clinic, the UW community and even the broader advocacy community playing a direct or indirect role in the result."

Finally, the students worked to distinguish the local case and pull in claims others had successfully argued around the country, ultimately convincing the opposing counsel to agree to a bond, on which the judge signed off.

Since release, the client has been sheltering in place back east with family as he awaits his asylum hearing, which has been rescheduled.

The outcome is the latest example the kinds of impacts students can have through clinic work — work that can be as deeply rewarding as it is challenging, Paroff says.

“Working to support people seeking a better life and just knowing that you’re making a positive difference in their legal chances — it really makes it all worth it.”