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Owen Lubozynski, Cornell Law, Feb. 17, 2023
"Twenty years ago, Cornell Law School established its Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic. Since then, some 200 students have represented close to 100 clients. In a system where the vast majority of asylum seekers lose their appeals, the clinic has won an estimated sixty-six percent of its cases.
“Because of the complexity of immigration law, it is very hard to win asylum for someone,” says clinic codirector Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of Immigration Law Practice. “We are fortunate that we have excellent students who work tirelessly to save their clients from persecution or torture.”
Emily Rivera ’23, who is taking the clinic for a second year, writes, “This has been the most rewarding experience of my law school career. From working on federal court appeals to submitting request releases on behalf of detained clients, I have had the chance to engage in work that I am deeply passionate about.”
The experience has inspired careers in immigration law—and also deeply informed alumni’s work in other areas. Neethu Putta ’19, who took the clinic for two years as a student and now contributes to its work as an adjunct professor, observes, “The clinic taught me how to artfully frame issues and tell a client’s narrative in a way that leaves the court no choice but to find for them. As a practicing commercial litigator, I now use those skills daily.”
Clinic codirector Estelle McKee, clinical professor of law (Lawyering), notes that the clinic offers students a unique glimpse into the lives of individuals whose paths they would otherwise never cross. “Our clients are brave; many have undergone unspeakable persecution and torture, and have embarked on treacherous journeys to protect their families,” she says. “Their experiences and persistence offer students deep insight into the importance of zealous advocacy.”
McKee shares some comments sent to her by clinic clients. A Salvadoran asylum-seeker wrote, “I sincerely want to thank you for all your willingness, commitment, responsibility, and the respect with which you offer me your help. Few people do what you did for me, so I will be forever grateful to you.” [translated from Spanish]
Another reflection comes from a Cameroonian client who had been found “not credible” by an immigration judge and was ailing in a for-profit prison when the clinic took up his case. Against the odds, McKee and her students were able to get the case reopened and will represent this asylum-seeker as he returns to court. He says, “I continue to appreciate your care and concern and effort to my case… [Y]ou have really been a blessing to me… I will never forget you.”
For the professors as well, the experience has been unforgettable. Says Yale-Loehr, “The clinic has been a highlight of my legal career. I feel honored to have worked with so many excellent students over the years to help persecuted people win asylum and start a new life in the US.”
McKee adds, “There is nothing like clinical teaching. Not only does it present the opportunity to provide the representation so desperately needed by underserved populations, but it also enables a teacher to help shape the next generation of lawyers while also having an impact on the development of the law.”"