Since its inception in August 2017, the KBI–Florence Project Legal Fellow Program has provided representation for numerous asylum seekers, handling their cases throughout the process and boosting the chances of success. Here are three stories of people who, despite the odds, won their asylum cases through their perseverance and the support of counsel from the Legal Fellow.
The KBI–Florence Project Legal Fellow represents asylum seekers encountered by the KBI and detained after presenting themselves for asylum. In particular, the program focuses on people who have experienced violent persecution and who would be particularly vulnerable if returned to their home countries. The stories we include here are distressing—all include episodes of extreme violence—and speak to the great need for legal representation and assistance in order to construct and put forth solid, irrefutable arguments for granting asylum. These asylum seekers won their cases, but the vast majority do not, in many instances, due to lack of counsel. Please note, in the cases of Martín and Fernando, names have been changed for privacy and security reasons.
FRANCISCO’S STORY: Born to a politically-active family in Chivacoa, Venezuela, 29-year-old Francisco has always been involved in local efforts to advance human and civil rights and peacefully protest Maduro’s authoritarian regime, which came to power in 2013, the same year Francisco graduated from university to begin his career as an attorney. In that oppressive political environment, he and his family were often targeted for persecution, and violent threats against them rapidly escalated.
Among various incidents, his sister and her husband were attacked outside their home in 2015 by government-supported forces known as colectivos. In 2017, at a demonstration calling for free and fair elections, colectivos fired tear gas at protestors, Francisco among them. Several months later, he was approached by gun-wielding colectivo members who threatened to kill him if he continued to oppose the government. They assaulted Francisco, and left him bleeding. Before long, he and his sister were on the national guard’s “black list,” making international travel near-impossible and flagging them for certain death upon return to the country should they succeed in leaving to begin with.
Fearing for his life, Francisco fled to Ecuador in late 2017 to join his sister and brother-in-law, who had already escaped, and in January 2018, they were able to leave Ecuador for Peru on temporary visas. In both countries, however, xenophobia against venecos (a slur referring to Venezuelan migrants) was rampant, and the threat of colectivos loomed. While in Peru, a colectivo member who recognized Francisco from his Chivacoa neighborhood threatened him and his family.
Still in danger despite their flights, all three journeyed to the U.S.–Mexico border, arriving last November to present themselves for asylum at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales, Sonora. The KBI–Florence Project Legal Fellow met with Francisco at the Eloy Detention Center and, with another Florence Project attorney, argued his asylum case to a successful outcome just last month. Still, it was Francisco’s own determination, diligence, and organization that bolstered his claim. Finally released after eight months of detention, Francisco now looks forward to building his life in the U.S., reuniting with his sister and brother-in-law (who were granted asylum earlier in the year), and one day returning to the legal field.
MARTíN’S STORY: As a student impacted by the social security rollbacks in his home country of Nicaragua, Martín (28) participated in peaceful demonstrations against President Ortega’s increasing authoritarianism and crackdowns on dissenters. At many of these gatherings, his activism placed him directly in harm’s way—armed forces responded to the crowds with rubber bullets, tear gas, and at times, live ammunition, even as hospitals, by government order, turned the injured away. The state-sanctioned brutality only reinforced Martín’s conviction to continue voicing his opposition, despite the dangers.
In April 2018, while on his way to a rally honoring the mothers who had lost their children to state violence, four men intercepted Martín, forcing him into a car at gunpoint. They broke his nose, questioned him about the student movement, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t provide information. They took him to El Chipote, a notorious underground prison run by the government, where he was tortured and interrogated. After a day of torture, they decided he was disposable, took him to a cliff, shoved him off the precipice, and shot at him as he fell. Amazingly, the bullets missed Martín, and he survived the fall. Hearing his screams, passersby took him to a hospital, and Martín remained in hiding while he recovered. However, he was still in danger. A local political secretary learned he was alive, and resumed the harassment and threats. In fear for his life, Martín decided to flee the country, and endured a journey through Mexico also riddled with perils and violence.
Martín’s experience is typical of people who seek asylum on political persecution grounds. His direct participation in peaceful protests made him a target for the Nicaraguan government’s enforcers, and he was subject to horrific and traumatic assaults, culminating in an attempt on his life. Despite this history, Martín never received a credible fear interview, was denied humanitarian parole, and suffered seven months of detention without sufficient healthcare services to address his PTSD and lingering physical injuries.
As he awaited his day in court, Martín demonstrated incredible fortitude and patience. At his hearing, the immigration judge acknowledged the severity of Martín’s past experiences, and indicated that the only issue for the court was credibility. However, the government prosecutor argued to bar Martín’s asylum claim, based on the unfounded blanket assertion that political protestors in Nicaragua were themselves violent, and therefore must be denied entry to the U.S. and resettled in Mexico instead. The judge rejected this argument, and in June 2019, Martín was granted humanitarian asylum, at last living safely in Florida with his father.
FERNANDO’S STORY: From a very early age, Fernando, a 32-year-old trans man, suffered gender-based abuse and violence in his home country of El Salvador. Starting when Fernando was only four, his grandfather, enraged that his grandchild seemed too masculine, began physically abusing him, beating him with fists, switches, and anything at hand, once so badly that Fernando could barely walk. When Fernando was seven, his grandfather attempted to rape him in order to “make a woman of him.” When Fernando’s father became aware of the abuse years later, he moved the family.
Tragically, Fernando’s grandfather was not his only abuser, and the abuse did not end when the family moved. Because of his masculine presentation and perceived sexual identity, Fernando was routinely harassed, bullied, and beaten up at school, forcing him to drop out at 16. Throughout his teen years and into adulthood, as violence against the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) community escalated, he and his family were targeted for harassment, though the police passively refused to offer protection or, in some instances, actually perpetrated the abuses.
More recently, a group of criminal delinquents, tied to local gangs, began stalking Fernando, his sister and cousin (both lesbians), and his girlfriend (who is bisexual). Ultimately, these violent men, motivated by bigotry and a toxic form of machismo, kidnapped Fernando’s cousin. They murdered and dismembered her, publicly acknowledging responsibility for the horrific crime, yet never arrested or charged by the authorities. They roamed free, and threatened to kill Fernando and various family members if they did not “turn themselves over.” In spring 2018, Fernando’s sister was kidnapped twice. Once she was returned; the second time their brother tracked her phone, discovered her confined in a car, and rescued her. His involvement in her escape made him a target as well. Soon thereafter, Fernando fled the country for the U.S. with his father, sister, brother, and girlfriend.
Though asylum claims based on gender identity and sexual orientation should be clear-cut, a case’s success depends heavily on access to counsel and assignment to a sympathetic judge. For asylum seekers without attorneys, the legal complexities of defending their “particular social group” and making a case before an indifferent or hostile judge can result in in an unsuccessful claim and return to the deadly circumstances they fled. This is why the Legal Fellow program is so critical. With representation throughout their detention and well-documented, well-argued cases, Fernando was granted asylum in May, and his girlfriend, who was represented by a Florence Project pro bono lawyer, in July.