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Int’l Human Rights Clinic Student reflects on his experiences and clinic’s efforts in asylum case

International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) students, Swain Uber, ’15, and Michael Frenkel, ’15, and Clinic Director, Professor James Cavallaro, appeared at a Canadian immigration board hearing on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.  Michael shares background on the case and experience.

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A week before the Thanksgiving break, our clinic director, Professor James Cavallaro, received an email from a Canadian attorney. She asked him to provide an expert declaration in the case of “Sal,” a young man from El Salvador seeking asylum in Canada.

A few years ago, Professor Cavallaro had helped to research and write the definitive study of gang violence in El Salvador, No Place to Hide: Gang, State, and Clandestine Violence in El Salvador. Since then, immigration lawyers representing Salvadoran clients have sought him out for his expertise on country conditions in El Salvador. Professor Cavallaro has written and testified in numerous asylum and refugee cases where the claims were impacted by the El Salvador’s pervasive gang violence.

Sal’s story was particularly moving. The young man had fled El Salvador several years ago after resisting a gang’s violent recruitment efforts. He had already experienced life-threatening reprisal for his refusal to join the gang and feared that a return to the country would make him a target once again.

The IHRCRC was already familiar with Sal’s case; Professor Cavallaro had previously filed two affidavits in this very matter, one of which was prepared by Swain and Nikki Marquez, ‘15. The first affidavit was a general observation about the dangers that a young man would face if he were to return to El Salvador after having rebuffed a gang’s efforts to recruit him. The second declaration was written to update the record with information about the impact of a major gang truce that had been made in El Salvador in March 2013. Swain and Nikki researched crime statistics and Salvadoran news media sources and discovered that Sal would continue to face a serious threat, even in the post-truce environment.

Now, Sal’s attorney reported that the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) board member was seeking additional information about the nature of the risk that a young man of Sal’s age would face in El Salvador. Swain and I researched the details of recent reprisal killings reported by the Salvadoran press and found an alarming number of incidents in which gangs had acted on their threats to kill young men who had refused to join. We compiled this research and assisted Professor Cavallaro in composing an updated declaration.

A few days after submitting the affidavit and speaking with Sal’s attorney about the various ways in which the IHRCRC could support the case, Professor Cavallaro was invited to answer the board member’s questions in person. We joined him on his trip to Canada in order to help him prepare for his testimony and to conduct ad hoc research tasks.

At the hearing on Wednesday, December 4th, the board member spent approximately an hour asking probing questions about the conditions in El Salvador and the nature of the threats that Sal would face if he were to return. As soon as Professor Cavallaro had responded to each of these questions, the board member abruptly announced that he was going to make his decision then and there. Everyone in the room was confused — earlier that morning, the board member had told Sal’s attorney that he would not be reaching a final verdict that day.

As they waited for the board member’s decision, the three of us prepared ourselves for the worst. But we were relieved to see that Sal’s attorney did not appear anxious.  Well-versed in Canadian asylum procedure, she knew (unlike us) that no board member would make a negative decision without first giving her the chance to examine her own witness.

Once the board member finished going through each of the grounds and necessary criteria for successful asylum claims, he closed his book and looked to Sal, issuing his decision. With a smile on his face, he addressed Sal directly: “Welcome to Canada.”

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