Immigration Clinic Wins Case of Torture Survivor

Students in experiential learning programs handle real-world cases and gain hands-on knowledge.
Immigration Clinic Wins Case of Torture Survivor
Immigration Clinic students Sandra Lackmann, Kelsey McGonigle, Gabriela Rivera, and Anthony Mena

Four students in the Immigration Clinic halted the deportation of a client from South America who his government had tortured. The client, who has been in immigration detention at Baker County Jail since last year, hopes to be released soon.

Second-year students Sandra Lackmann, Kelsey McGonigle, Anthony Mena, and Gabriela Rivera worked over 600 hours on the case, culminating in two days of contested hearings before the Orlando Immigration Court.

"This is a hard-fought victory that will stick with me for the rest of my life," said Lackmann. "The odds were stacked against our client in a legal system that favors deportation over due process, and it was an honor to fight alongside him for the opportunity to remain safely in the United States."

The case involved a statutory defense to deportation called withholding of removal. To win, an applicant must show that it is more likely than not that they will be persecuted because of one of five grounds, including political opinion.

The clinic's client had been jailed for 15 days without charge in his home country. While imprisoned, government authorities would pull him out of the cell at night, put a bag over his head, and press a gun to his torso as they drove him around and threatened to kill him and his family. The client was starved and held in a severely overcrowded cell with no sanitary facilities. He and the other imprisoned men had to urinate into bottles, defecate into newspapers, and take turns sleeping in makeshift hammocks. 

"After over a decade in hiding, we are honored and overjoyed to help our client restore his stability and dignity by legally remaining in the United States, where he can live and pursue his dreams to study without fear for his life," said McGonigle.

In the immigration clinic, students are the primary advocates for their clients in court, from interviewing clients and witnesses to writing pretrial memoranda and motions to conducting the final bench trial. 

"Clinic this year was a great experience, but this case in particular meant a lot to me," Rivera said. "Working with the rest of the team to get our client the justice he so clearly deserves allowed me to reconnect with my 'why' for coming to law school, and I'm so glad that after all the terrible things he's experienced in his country, our client will now be able to live safely in the United States." 

The clinic represented their client as part of a project funded by the Florida Bar to help detained individuals at Baker County jail. The jail is a 45-minute drive outside Jacksonville but hours away from most immigration attorneys in Florida. As a result, most people detained at the jail are unrepresented in immigration court.

"It feels incredible to my end my 2L year and my time in the Immigration Clinic with a win, especially for such a wonderful client who has gone through so much," said Mena. "It was an honor to be able to represent him and it has been the highlight of my time in law school."

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