A Destination Deferred

Selwyn Chu
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law
Part 1 of 2

Even by the standards of its practice, Casa Cornelia Law Center is a small operation. A count of its full-time staff can be taken on two hands, and while it avails itself of the services of several volunteer attorneys, a fair amount of work still finds its way into the hands of the six to ten law student clerks and interns that pass through each semester and summer. The office is modest but quaint, on the second floor of a three-story office building one block away from Balboa Park in downtown San Diego. Less than a half hour from the U.S. port of entry at San Ysidro, it is well situated for the work it does and the clientele it serves.

I came into the job with one semester of immigration law under my belt and a pro bono asylum case on my plate. Two years in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer gave me one less language barrier to deal with. My supervisor at Casa Cornelia was a young attorney named Josh Chatten-Brown,who was also the associate director of the law center. I was given every opportunity to work on cases—Josh’s mostly, but a few to call my own.

Of the ones that were mine, not all panned out. Two defensive asylum cases I had fell through when my clients-to-be, through their families or of their own accord, retained private counsel. The one case that stuck was an affirmative asy-lum case involving a client from Libya unable to go home because of the civil war and Gaddafi’s ongoing deeds during the conflict. I was to prepare the applica-tion for asylum, replete with declaration, country condition reports, and other evidence tending to show that my client is who he says he is and that his fear of persecution is real and well founded. It will be filed this month.

The balance of my efforts were spent on clients that were not my own—a Cuban dissident seeking political asylum, a Salvadoran asylee petitioning his daughters for visas, a pair of Somalians appealing denial of their asy-lum applications to the Board of Immi-gration Appeals, a Mexican asylum seek-er moving to reopen his case after being ordered removed in absentia. Clients were called. Research was done. Briefs and motions were drafted and filed.

The curious thing about immigra-tion practice—and asylum practice in particular—is how it renders routine the life-and-death situation. The clients have in common that dual intimacy. It is why they are here. For life. Or, at least, the promise of living, with all its joys and indignities. Where they come from, little is promised. Less is given. Nothing is safe. What they have, they risk. Their families. Their livelihoods. Their lives. The stories vary, but the stakes are always the same.