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Law Students Win Asylum for Nigerian Voting Rights Activist

March 25, 2022 (5 min read)

IHRC, Mar. 25, 2022

"Students in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) worked to obtain asylum for a voting rights activist from Nigeria. This case prompted the Clinic to develop a resource to assist asylees in understanding their rights.

The clinic took on the case of a Nigerian woman, Chioma*, who had been active in organizing women and youth in the Delta region to vote against corrupt political candidates. She drew crowds of women and youth as an effective organizer, simultaneously drawing the ire of incumbent politicians. Armed thugs targeted Chioma in her home in 2019, resulting in her hospitalization. Refusing to back down, she later attended a political event where she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Deciding she would rather stay alive for her children – even if far away – Chioma fled to the U.S. and left her family behind.

Clinic students Forrest Lindelof and Chizoba Kagha, both 3Ls, picked up Chioma’s case in the fall semester and worked under the supervision of Associate Dean of Clinical and Experiential Programs Lindsay M. Harris to complete her declaration, a detailed narrative of what she had endured in Nigeria and what she feared. The students crafted a legal brief with supporting evidence they obtained through working with a country conditions expert, a therapist and a medical doctor. The legal arguments were challenging because of the client’s dual citizenship in Cameroon and Nigeria; they needed to argue she would face persecution in both nations. The students had to become experts in the complex political dynamics at play in both countries, along with the citizenship laws.

This case also hit close to home for both students. Kagha shared, “I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who relocated to the United States in hopes of a better opportunity for their future children. When we began working with our client, I immediately felt a connection to her.”

As well, Lindelof related the client’s story to that of his immigrant mother. “As the son of an immigrant, it was not difficult to imagine my mother experiencing similar maltreatment and vulnerability. We worked that much harder, knowing that our work would have a meaningful impact on our client and her future.”

Moreover, the students got to know their client and were inspired by Chioma’s strength, resilience and personality. Lindelof described her as “jolly and good-humored” and the case as “a great source of pride.” Kagha added, “Her personality lit up a room, and her passion for helping others was inspiring.”

After working diligently with the client to prepare for the asylum interview, the students accompanied her to the asylum interview in November. After extensive questioning, Kagha delivered the closing statement, drawing together all the key issues in the case.

In January, Lindelof, Kagha and Harris received word that Chioma’s asylum application had been approved. The client was ecstatic, as was the UDC Law team. “To be able to sit in the asylum office as a Nigerian female student attorney delivering the closing statement for a Nigerian female client is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life,” said Kagha.

Chioma was eager to be reunited with her spouse and children as soon as possible, but she was worried about accessing the asylee benefits to which she is entitled. Dean Harris has written about these benefits in depth in a 2016 article, From Surviving to Thriving: An Examination of Asylee Integration in the United States. Due to Chioma’s questions and concerns about her accessing public benefits rendering her a “public charge,” Dean Harris brought on 1L Clinical Associate Kendra Li to create a helpful one-page resource, Asylum and Public Charge. This resource clearly explains that asylees like Chioma are exempt from the public charge bar to adjustment of status to become a lawful permanent resident and eventually U.S. citizen.

“The best way to master a subject is to teach it to someone else,” Li said of developing the resource. “The public charge rule isn’t a complicated topic, but the process of researching it and distilling that research into a digestible and accessible product really cemented the learning.”

The document answers questions common for Chioma and other asylees. Li explained the need for creating this resource to answer these questions not only for the client in this case but countless other asylees. “Even though the Trump administration’s attempt to expand the public charge rule couldn’t, by law, apply to asylum seekers, it unsurprisingly – and perhaps deliberately – created a chilling effect well beyond the categories of immigrants it actually impacted,” Li said. “Our country is stronger and more just when the public benefits we provide reach all the people they’re meant to lift up, so it’s important to get the right information out there.”

Lindelof, under Harris’s supervision, quickly filed petitions to bring Chioma’s children and spouse to the United States and is now working to expedite those requests. Since Chioma was forced to flee Nigeria in 2019, thugs hired by political actors have targeted her husband at least five times, searching for Chioma and her whereabouts. The Clinic will stand by Chioma and her family throughout the lengthy process of family reunification and consular processing at the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. In the meantime, Chioma hopes to reengage in organizing and contribute to her community in the United States.

All three students reflected on how this case and their time engaging with the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic have enriched their legal education and helped them prepare for their careers.

“It is tough to express how meaningful my clinic experience was at UDC Law,” Lindelof said. “I came to law school with a background in psychology, having done a lot of fulfilling work with children with disabilities and individuals who suffered from addiction. I had not quite felt that same sense of fulfillment until my time at the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. It renewed my passion for the law.”

Li “came to law school to practice immigration law and chose UDC for its clinical program.” She added, “I’m very appreciative to be involved as a 1L. This was a great first-year project. If this one pager helps just one person, it’ll have been well worth the effort.”

Kagha chose to attend UDC Law because of her “desire to positively impact the lives of others, especially people who look like me. To be able to sit in the asylum office as a Nigerian female student attorney delivering the closing statement for a Nigerian female client is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Lindelof added praise for Dean Harris and the ways in which working with her have helped him narrow down his post-law school path. “Working with a supervisor with such tremendous drive and passion was infectious. Dean Harris did a great job tying the clinic’s content to racial justice and deficiencies in the justice system, which impacted my philosophy about the law and my general outlook on the world. It also drove me to seek out a career in immigration. I am humbled at the opportunity that I will be working for the D.C. Affordable Law Firm and practicing hopefully both family law and immigration next year, which happen to be the clinics I was a part of at UDC.”

*Name changed to preserve anonymity."