Jose Perez had almost given up the case.
The third-year law student had been assigned a client in University of Baltimore School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic — a transgender woman from Honduras seeking asylum in the United States.
Perez called her over and over for a couple weeks with no word back. Eventually, he was assigned a new case. He was about to phone the new client.
Then she called.
“She got kind of lucky,” Perez said. “I had the new case right in front of me.”
Perez won asylum for the transgender woman last month in his first appearance before a judge — in a hearing that is supposed to last a few hours but took only 45 minutes.
“I think what was unusual about this case was the way that it was won,” said Elizabeth Keyes, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic. “The judge made it clear the written submission before trial was very, very strong. It seemed like the government and the judge understood what the issues were.”
Perez, 23, made his first call on the case in January and followed it through to the hearing on Nov. 22 in Baltimore Immigration Court.
“It was probably the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced,” Perez said.
While Perez had been trying to contact the Honduran woman, she had moved from Annapolis to Texas to stay with her brother. The woman, for privacy reasons, has asked to remain anonymous, and, for the purposes of this story, will be identified as Stephanie.
“I never take asylum plans lightly,” Keyes said. “At the same time, I always believe if someone has suffered persecution, there’s got to be a way to prove that to a court. I never saw this case as legally impossible. It was just a question of bringing together facts, law, evidence in a way that would persuade a judge to see it the same way we did.”
Perez’s client was born a boy in a small town in Honduras called San Francisco Lempira. Stephanie started identifying as a female when she was very young and as a result was bullied and beaten by family members, teachers and classmates, Perez said.
Her father once beat her so badly her siblings had to run to her neighbors to stop him from killing her, Perez said. When Stephanie’s sister caught her dressing in women’s clothing, she attacked Stephanie with a machete, scarring her face.
And there was not a police station in her town.
“She would be beaten mercilessly by teachers and her father and she had no one to report the violence to,” Perez said.
When Stephanie was about 12, she fled her home and moved in with an aunt in a slightly larger town an hour away called San Juan Pueblo.
There, the abuse got worse, Perez said. In the larger town, there were more people to see her, and she was dressing like a woman more often.
“She had these very primal beatings,” Perez said. “People threw stones, tied her up and threw stones at her. She had already faced so many traumas at the hands of her father.”
Cut with a knife
Stephanie moved to Tela, a larger city in Honduras. There she lived with her brother and went to school. She would be attacked by gang members walking back from school fundraising events at night, Perez said. Members cut her with a knife and threw her down a flight of stairs.
“That’s when she decided to come to the U.S.,” Perez said.
Stephanie took a train from Honduras to Mexico. The first try she was turned away at the Mexican border. So she simply took the train back to Honduras and got on one headed north again. The second try was successful and Stephanie entered the United States. She turned 18 shortly afterwards.
She had been living in the U.S. for six or seven years when she was arrested in 2011 for disorderly conduct outside a New York hotel. That’s when the group, Immigration Equality, which provides free legal help to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender immigrants, took her case.
Before consulting with a lawyer through Immigration Equality, Stephanie knew nothing about U.S. asylum laws, Perez said. The group suggested she apply for asylum and filed the preliminary paperwork for her.
When Stephanie moved to Maryland, the group transferred her case to Keyes, who was then working at American University in Washington, D.C. Keyes brought the case with her to the University of Baltimore School of Law when she started at the clinic in summer 2012.
Perez took the case from there. And when he took Stephanie on as a client, her file was essentially empty.
“We had to develop her entire case,” Perez said.
Perez began gathering information, talking to Stephanie every week over the phone and interviewing her about her life. At one point, he even had her write down all of her life experiences and send it to him.
Since Stephanie did not speak a lot of English, Perez translated the letter and phone conversations. His translations were then certified by an official translator.
Fear of persecution
Perez helped Stephanie develop a more detailed application since she had just filled out the basics in the first one. They then resubmitted the application with more detail.
It took Perez five months to draft a final version of the brief for the case as he and Keyes constantly edited the document.
To show why she did not file for asylum within a year of moving to the United States, which is required under law, Perez had to prove she did not know about the law. He also cited a mental evaluation to show she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. These conditions, Perez, argued, impeded her ability to come forward and file for asylum.
Perez had to prove Stephanie met the definition of a refugee and was an alien in fear of persecution in her home country. He also had to show the government in Honduras was unable or unwilling to protect her.
Perez had to prove that this fear was well-founded and that she was being persecuted as a member of a particular social group — in her case, transgender people.
“It’s something I’ve learned over time,” Keyes said. “Even strong cases can lose and even weaker cases can win. I never saw this case as particularly winnable or losable. Each case stands on its own for me.”
Though students usually only spend one semester in the clinic, Jose chose to remain in it as he followed the case through into the fall.
“Jose has been dedicated since the first day,” Keyes said. “He was really a delight to work with. He took responsibility for this case immediately.”
This November, Stephanie flew in from Texas for the hearing.
The hearing was short, and the judge ruled in Stephanie’s favor. With the evidence presented in the brief, the government conceded most arguments right away.
With last month’s victory, Stephanie can apply for legal permanent residency in a year and citizenship in five years.
“[Stephanie] was in disbelief,” Perez said. “She kept asking if she was in a dream.”