shutterstock_172985966Last Wednesday, July 3rd, a client from El Salvador won her merits hearing! I appeared with attorney Melisa Peña from Miami over video conference, while Elora Mukherjee appeared by telephone from Tokyo, Japan and John Bradley appeared, sitting next to the client, from Dilley, TX. Thank you to everyone, particularly Elora and law student Swapna Reddy who helped to prep this case remotely as part of the off-site merits team.

This was our first case where the client appeared in Dilley and was represented by counsel in Miami. We began to prep the case on Friday, June 19th, after Brian Hoffman, CARA Project lead attorney reached out to let us know the client had a merits hearing and was in need of pro bono counsel. The client is a survivor of sexual violence, born and raised in rural El Salvador. Her withholding claim was primarily based on sexual violence she suffered at the hands of her cousin, an M-18 gang leader. The client’s cousin raped her and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. He also forced her to leave her home, so he and his gang members could stay there. She had previously fled to Honduras, but her cousin followed her there and threatened her with death if she did not join his gang and become “his woman.”

Our client had two previous entries and this was her third entry to the United States. She had been apprehended by CBP both times, detained for two months and then returned to El Salvador. After the third entry, the client had a negative Reasonable Fear Interview (RFI), a favorable review from an immigration judge, and then a second RFI.

With the assistance of the amazing On-the-Ground team of Aseem Mehta, Ellen Miller, and Brian, I placed legal calls to our client five times. On June 24th we filed approximately 200 pages, including affidavits from the client, expert declarations, reports and news articles regarding femicide and gang violence. On June 26, I filed a motion for leave to file supplemental evidence, attaching an affidavit from the client’s mother and photographs of the home our client’s abuser invaded and then forced her to abandon.

On June 30, I filed a brief outlining the withholding claim but the logistics of representing our client for her merits hearing were daunting. I am a law student and my supervisor, Elora, was in Japan. We filed a motion for Elora to appear by telephone as my supervisor, which was granted on July 3rd. John Bradley, who had previously worked with the client during her second RFI, traveled to Texas while we prepared the case, to provide support to the client on-the-ground and potentially pinch hit if needed. The day of the hearing, the immigration judge hearing the case was concerned about the telephonic appearance because I would not be able to confer as easily with Elora. But another volunteer attorney, Melisa Peña, was in the building and supervised my appearance in person in immigration court.

There were no opening statements; we heard direct testimony from the client, followed by cross examination which was difficult for our client, but we prevailed. Not only did the client and her daughter go free, but she was interviewed by Telemundo after the decision so her story could be shared. Our client and her seven year old daughter were released that same day to John Bradley and stopped by to thank the CARA volunteers before getting on their way to reunite with her husband and her brother.

Please, please, please:  Consider taking these cases.  They are winnable – but the clients need YOU to help them. You can make a world of difference – either from Dilley or Miami or potentially appearing by telephone.

Volunteers can work on merits hearings remotely—just as Swapna, Elora and I did in this case.  If you are interested in taking on a merits case, but need some off-site support to do so, please reach out. Together we can bring these children and their mothers the safety and security they fled here to find.

Written by CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer Conchita Cruz


If you are an AILA member, law student, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at – we could really use your help.

To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.