In Immigration Clinic, Akron Law students advocate for clients before judges and win cases


Since fall 2016, University of Akron School of Law students at the school’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic have provided one-on-one representation in removal defense cases for 32 asylum-seeking noncitizens detained at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) in Youngstown and at other facilities throughout the country where appeals clients are held in custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Additionally, Clinic Director and Professor Elizabeth M. Knowles and her students have represented numerous other detained noncitizens in bond proceedings before the immigration court and in parole requests to ICE.

“Unfortunately, this number is just a small fraction of the thousands of detainees who have passed through these prisons over the last three years,” said Knowles. “But for those we successfully defend, the impact is life-changing.“

A new class gets started

At the end of August, Knowles welcomed five upper-level students to the clinic, along with several third year (3L) students returning for additional experience.


The fall 2019 class of Akron Law students in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic made their first visit to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown in September under the direction of the clinic’s director, Professor Elizabeth M. Knowles, front left. Next to her are Melissa Phillips, and Amanda Towne. In the top row, from left, are Chris Wilkins, Elizabeth Bretz and Antony Domino.

“The semester is off to a good start,” Knowles said. “We had a big group of detainees for the Know Your Rights presentation during the class’s first visit to NEOCC in September. And as of mid-October, all five new students have now represented a detained individual in bond proceedings before the U.S. Immigration Court in Cleveland. Each of their clients was granted a reasonable bond, so we are celebrating a 100% bond success rate this semester.”

In the coming weeks of the semester, the students will be immersed in a full trial experience, seeking asylum, withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture on behalf of their clients in removal proceedings.

Clinic newcomer Elizabeth McNeil, 3L, is looking forward to it.

“Having the experience of preparing for, arguing and then winning a bond for my client was incredibly impactful,” she said. “It brought together all the theory, reading and research I had built in the classroom and allowed me to apply it in a manner that directly supported my client’s freedom, rights and quality of life."

“More and more law schools have added immigration clinics,” said Knowles. “But only a handful do what we do: Train law students to provide pro bono defense in court exclusively for detained asylum seekers in deportation proceedings. In the state of Ohio, our clinic is the only one that does this.”

Looking back at the 2018-19 school year, among other cases, two clinic students won grants of asylum for their clients and another won her client’s case after the government appealed the immigration court’s initial decision granting him asylum. A fourth student succeeded in getting her client released on a very low bond, enabling him to reunite with his family while awaiting his hearing. 

“None of these cases are easy,” Knowles said. “Few of the detainees speak English and many have physical and mental health issues due to the ordeals they faced before arriving here, as well as the ongoing challenges of being detained in a prison. Even with legal representation, all face an uphill battle in preparing for their hearings before an immigration court judge.”

The Eritrean soldier


Elizabeth Knowles and Gaea Kassatly

The story that the asylum-seeking client told May 2019 graduate Gaea Kassatly last fall was truly incredible. Several months later, during the second of three immigration court hearings, the judge said the same thing to Kassatly — which was not a good sign. 

Kassatly’s client, Daniel,* came to the United States from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa that is regarded as one of the most insular and cruel dictatorships in the world. Among other forms of oppression, all Eritrean men are subject to conscription into the army at age 17, and many are required serve until as late as age 50. It is a harsh life, and desertion is rampant.

Daniel had been in the army for about two years when he returned late to his barracks one night, he told Kassatly. He was charged with desertion, beaten until he finally confessed to what they wanted to hear, and sentenced to four years in prison.

While in prison, Daniel converted to Pentecostalist Christianity, which is a banned religion in Eritrea. Back in the army after serving his term, he was caught praying with a group of civilian men. He was beaten by police and told “his kind” needed to be eliminated. They transported him to what he described as “an even worse prison,” an underground jail where he was confined with other men in a shipping container.

After about six months, he managed to escape, he told Kassatly. His goal was to get to the United States, where he believed his older brother was living.

Daniel spent 12 months traveling through multiple countries to reach the Texas-Mexico border, where he asked for asylum due to fear of persecution on account of his religion. He was detained and then flown to NEOCC in the summer of 2018.

In search of corroboration

Daniel was fortunate that Knowles identified his case as one where she thought the clinic could make a difference. But it proved difficult to corroborate his story because he had not seen his family for years and communication with Eritrea is challenging.

After the judge told Kassatly at the initial hearing that he didn’t believe Daniel’s description of the prison, she went back to her computer. She found a blog post by an Israeli woman about an Eritrean man who had told her a story similar to Daniel’s. The woman put Kassatly in touch with the man, who now was living in England. He pointed her to an online article about him that she was able to submit as corroborating evidence.

Kassatly was also able to track down Daniel’s brother, living in Atlanta. He had gone through a similar experience at a different prison. His telephone testimony in court further corroborated Daniel’s story.

As Knowles wrote on the clinic’s Facebook page following the judge’s favorable ruling, “Our client burst into tears upon hearing the judge’s decision translated into Tigrinya, his native language. Gaea, today you have saved a life, and I am so incredibly proud of you!”

“I wish more students were in the clinic,” said Kassatly.“If there were 20, we could help 20 people. But there were only three of us last fall. I’ve tried a lot of things in law school, other clinics, but nothing topped the experience in the immigration clinic.”

Epilogue: Daniel went to Atlanta after the hearing to join his brother, who works as a truck driver and is well-connected with the local Eritrean immigrant community. Daniel expected to find work there, Kassatly said.

The Cuban lawyer


Elizabeth Knowles and Rebekah Branha at the immigration court.

Rebekah Branham, 3L, represented a Cuban lawyer with a political opinion claim for asylum last term.

Luis* worked for the government, as do all lawyers in Communist Cuba. He said he was discriminated against at work because he came from a family that had long been out of favor with the government. But he didn’t become a target until he tried to defend members of a peaceful protest group that advocates on behalf of political prisoners.

He was hauled in by the police who beat and tortured him for 10 hours, he told Branham. When he was released from the hospital a week later, he found a government summons waiting for him. He knew he had to flee. He managed to get on a flight to Mexico City. From there, he traveled by train and bus to the U.S. border where he asked for political asylum. A month later he was transported to the Youngtown prison.

Luis was the perfect client, Branham said, although he was clearly still traumatized by what had happened to him.

“He was extremely helpful in the process,” she said. “He was able to get pictures. He got the actual summons. Even though he didn’t know our asylum laws, he was so smart. I knew if I messed up, he would know. The judge said after the hearing that it was one of the best-corroborated cases he’d ever heard.”

“The experience I gained in the immigration clinic class was unlike any other law school experience,” Branham said. “You’re presenting a whole case on your own in front of a judge. I know I want to practice immigration law now. If I don’t utilize that experience, it would be wasted.”

Epilogue: Luis went to Orlando a few days after the hearing, where he has family and where there is a large Cuban American community, Branham said.

The Honduran business owner

Sandu* had a small business delivering groceries in Honduras, he told then second-year Akron Law student Kelsey Reff.

Two years earlier, he was approached by a gang that demanded monthly “security” payments. He was targeted in part because he belonged to a minority group —  the Garifuna— a darker-skinned, mixed-race indigenous people who often face discrimination and persecution in Honduras.

Fulbright Fellows and faculty

Kelsey Reff preparing for a court proceeding.

Sandu told Reff that he struggled to make the payments but managed to do so for about a year. Then the gang became more aggressive and demanded more money. When he said he could not pay more, they beat him with their guns. When they left, they told him, “You got lucky this time.”

Sandu said he did feel lucky — to be alive. He knew he could not seek help from the police, so he made one more payment and fled north with his wife and a niece and nephew whose mother had been killed by a gang.

The family traveled through Guatemala and Mexico and were apprehended in Texas in January 2018 soon after they crossed the Rio Grande. There, Sandu was separated from his wife and the children and transported to Youngstown.

A surprisingly low bond

“This looked to us like a pretty slam-dunk asylum case,” said Reff. “It was very clear that there was a nexus. It would be easy to prove that the police system in Honduras is so corrupt that the family couldn’t seek protection from them.”

But the hardship of being detained weighed heavy on Sandu, as it does for everyone who has fled persecution and is detained in ICE custody, said Knowles, and he sought the clinic’s assistance with seeking a bond so that he could fight his case outside of detention.

“Normally, the judge we had doesn’t give a bond lower than around $12,000,” Reff said.“ We weren’t sure he would be able to make a bond payment that high. So, it was surprising when the judge set it for $3,500. We were so thankful.”

Reff guessed that the judge was willing to set the bond so low because Sandu had a strong case and was not a flight risk since he was rejoining his family here.

And what about his family? Back in Texas, Sandu’s wife had been released and was able to make it to New Orleans, where her sister is a U.S. citizen. She was also able to reunite with the children. Through support from the Honduran community there (New Orleans is the largest Honduran expatriate community in the country), his wife and sister were able to raise enough money to pay the bond.

“I was really lucky to have the immigration clinic,” Reff said. “It is so helpful to actually make a difference — to take on a case, represent a client at court and maybe save a life. It was super rewarding. A lot of my friends now wish they had been able to be in the clinic.”

Epilogue: Sandu was released from NEOCC shortly after the bond hearing and managed to get to New Orleans. As a result of the immense backlog of asylum cases, it will be many months or even years before Sandu has his hearing.

The Afghan Air Force officer

Amanda May

Amanda May

In addition to its primary focus on representing clients in detention at NEOCC, the immigration clinic also takes on appellate cases identified by the BIA Pro Bono Project, a national group in Washington, D.C., that tries to find immigration attorneys or clinics to represent clients in need on a pro bono basis before the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Each semester, Knowles selects cases that she believes would be a good fit for the program’s Appellate Immigration Clinic. That is how May 2019 graduate Amanda (Najjar) May’s client came to the clinic’s attention.

Omar* joined the Afghan Air Force in 2014. He received English-language and military training from U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and in 2017 was brought to the United States for additional instructional courses.

Before he was sent to the U.S., Omar and his family had received death threats from the Taliban, he told May, and both he and some family members had been physically attacked. Fearful of returning to Afghanistan when his training was completed, Omar went AWOL and tried to flee to Canada. When he was picked up, he requested asylum in the U.S., based on a fear of persecution in Afghanistan. He was sent to Tacoma, Wash., for detention to await his hearing.

In December 2017, the immigration court in Tacoma granted Omar’s application for asylum. But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appealed the decision, asserting that he had not sufficiently provided grounds that he would experience prosecution back in Afghanistan.

Omar had successfully defended himself in the immigration court hearing, and he was out on bond, but he knew that preparing a written legal brief to respond to the DHS appeal was beyond his abilities, May explained. He was able to get his case listed with BIA Pro Bono Project.

Rebutting the DHS

Communicating with her client in Tacoma primarily by email in spring 2018, May prepared a 30-page brief responding to the DHS appeal. It took more than a year for the decision to come back from the BIA dismissing the appeal and upholding Omar’s asylum grant.

“Professor Knowles texted me about the decision when it came in and forwarded me the email,” May said. “Before I even read through it, I emailed my client and let him know. He was so excited. He had waited so long. We had told him that he would probably hear back officially in three to four months, but it took so much longer. He would call every month, and I would have to tell him, no, we hadn’t heard anything yet.

“I was expecting just a one-sentence decision, either reversed or upheld, but it was four or five pages,” May continued. “In my brief, I was able to argue with the government, to say that they were wrong here, they are inconsistent with the record, or they are trying to twist the facts here or there. It was cool to see that the BIA had read the brief and that the judges were responding to me, a law student.”

Epilogue: May did not know what her client’s plans were, but he had been living with a friend in Tacoma since his immigration court hearing.

As indicated with an asterisk*, the names of the clients in this story have been changed to pseudonyms to protect their identities and for their privacy.

Story by Patrick Gallagher

Media contact: Cristine Boyd, 330-972-6476 or cboyd