A Tale of Two Court Appearances: The Immigration Clinic Returns to Court for the First Time Since COVID

At the end of November, students and attorneys from the Immigration Clinic returned to court for the first time since February 2020. Students appeared in Arlington before the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, representing clients in a master calendar hearing and an individual hearing. 

The Clinic’s First Court Appearance since COVID

Majesta-Dore Legnini, J.D. Class of 2022 (center), with her supervisors Immigration Clinic Director Stacy Kern-Scheerer (right) and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow J. Nicole Alanko, J.D. Class of 2018 (left)

In anticipation of the master calendar hearing, Majesta-Dore Legnini, J.D. Class of 2022, prepared written pleadings for her clients. Majesta-Dore’s preparation was complicated by the fact that they did not have a copy of their Notice to Appear, the summons in immigration court that lists the immigration charges against the clients needed for pleadings. Majesta-Dore worked to contact the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor in order to obtain copies of the notices. 

At the hearing, Majesta-Dore appeared as a law student on behalf of four clinic clients. She did pleadings for all four respondents and scheduled the family’s trial on the merits of their case. Next semester, Majesta-Dore will continue working with her clients to prepare their asylum case and gather evidence necessary to support their case before the court.

A Family Can Enjoy the Holidays in Safety in the United States

Valerie Stoneback, J.D. Class of 2022, and Ian Thompson, J.D. Class of 2022 outside the Arlington Immigration Court

At the beginning of the fall semester, Valerie Stoneback, J.D. Class of 2022, and Ian Thompson, J.D. Class of 2022 were assigned a monumental task: to prepare the Gomez* family’s asylum case for trial. The Gomez family fled severe and life-threatening violence in Central America, the basis for their asylum claim. Because of the complexity of the family’s case, over the course of several semesters eleven students have been assigned to work with individual members of the family. Since accepting the case in the semester of Spring 2020, Clinic students have dedicated nearly 1,300 hours to preparing the family’s asylum case, an average of nearly 130 hours per student. 

When Ian and Valerie were assigned to work with the family in August, they were first tasked with writing briefs to update the court on significant legal changes that had happened since briefs and evidence were submitted in March 2021. Since March, there were several significant legal developments in asylum law, including the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Portillo Flores v. Garland and the Attorney General’s decision in Matter of A-B- III. Ian and Valerie wrote briefs for each member of the Gomez family to argue how these new legal developments supported each family member’s claim for asylum. Ian and Valerie met weekly with their supervising attorneys, Clinic Director Stacy Kern-Scheerer and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow Nicole Alanko, J.D. Class of 2018, to discuss each step of their progress.  

Ian and Valerie during their mock hearing with William Hoffmann, B.A. ’67, J.D. ’77

After submitting their briefs and additional supporting evidence, Ian and Valerie prepared the case for trial. They wrote direct examinations for three witnesses and closing arguments on several complex legal issues, including indigenous identity as a protected ground that merits asylum and the standard for persecution for children. Throughout November, Ian and Valerie had several meetings with the Gomez family and witnesses to prepare them for testimony. They continued to meet weekly with Professor Kern-Scheerer and Nicole to discuss their progress, as well as practice pleadings, admissions of evidence, and closing arguments in the James A. Penney & Laura Leigh Young Courtroom of the Hixon Center. As part of their preparation, Ian and Valerie also had a mock hearing in mid-November. William Hoffmann, B.A. ’67, J.D. ’77, graciously volunteered his time to serve as the judge for their mock hearing. Mr. Hoffmann provided feedback on the case and what they could expect from a judge in court. This mock hearing was a critical step in the students’ preparation for the November 30th hearing. 

While on the road to Arlington the day before the hearing, the team learned that the Gomez family may be eligible for another form of relief only recently made available by the Department of Homeland Security known as prosecutorial discretion. A grant of prosecutorial discretion would allow the family’s case in court to end and open up other avenues to apply for permanent status in the United States. 

The team jumped into action to prepare a request for the judge to continue the hearing in light of this new development so that the students could prepare the prosecutorial discretion application. While on the road to Arlington, Ian and Valerie began research for a motion to continue the case in light of this new eligibility. After everyone had arrived in Arlington, the students drafted the written motion and practiced their oral motion that they would be making to the judge the next morning. 

At the hearing, Valerie and Ian moved the court to continue the case so that the family could apply for prosecutorial discretion based on significant humanitarian factors. After their argument, the immigration judge granted their motion. Next semester, Ian and Valerie will continue to work with the Gomez family to apply for prosecutorial discretion, as well as evaluate next steps to help them receive permanent status in the United States.  

Thanks to the hard work of Ian and Valerie, the Gomez family will be able to enjoy the holidays in peace and safety here in Hampton Roads. 

“I thought the case was a perfect example of the power of having an attorney,” said Ian. “Without us, our clients would have walked into the hearing unaware of this option, would have likely lost their case, and would have likely been deported.” 

“This team’s preparation for this hearing was unparalleled,” said Professor Stacy Kern-Scheerer, Director of the Immigration Clinic. “Ian and Valerie have worked so hard and prepared so thoroughly to be extraordinary advocates for our clients. When last-minute negotiations with DHS required our team to pivot quickly and effectively in pursuit of the best possible outcome for our clients the day of the hearing, Ian and Valerie never broke a sweat or their stride. I am very proud of all the work they have done, and am looking forward to their continued work for our clients next semester.” 

*Name changed for confidentiality 

Experiences like these for students are made possible by the Clinic’s generous supporters. You can make wins like this a reality for more immigrants in Hampton Roads by donating to the Shainwald Immigration Law Clinic Fund.