Immigration and Human Rights Clinic Helps Mexican Family Win Asylum

A Mexican family that narrowly escaped cartel members who shot and pursued them is “ecstatic” after overcoming the odds—again—to win asylum in the United States with the help of Minnesota Law’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic.

The cartel targeted the family in 2017 because they couldn’t pay “rent” for their neighborhood store in a small town in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca state. Gunmen opened fire on the family’s car in broad daylight, striking the mother and father several times and causing her to lose an unborn child. Their daughter suffered a gunshot wound to her back while shielding her younger brother. The cartel, which continued shooting at the ambulance carrying the family, pursued them from one hospital then to another before the family was able to take a bus to the U.S. border and join relatives in Minnesota.

While family members largely have recovered physically from the harrowing incident, their emotional recovery will take more time.

Despite such a terrifying experience, winning an asylum case is no small feat these days, according to Professor Stephen Meili, faculty director of the clinic. That’s because the federal government has become much more restrictive in asylum cases involving victims of cartel and gang violence. 

A key to the victory, Meili said, was the dedication of students in the clinic, including current student directors Emily Hauck and Kristin Trapp, whose legal research and detailed country condition evidence was presented to the U.S. Immigration Court in Bloomington, where the family’s asylum hearing took place last November. Were it not for their hard work, the family would have probably been sent back to Mexico where they were likely to have been killed by the cartel.

Hauck, a 3L from New Jersey, acknowledges it is very difficult to meet the standard for asylum. “As students, we worked diligently on researching legal arguments and collecting evidence to show that the family merited asylum.”  

Supporting the students’ legal arguments were affidavits from academics and other experts that explained to the court why the family would be unsafe if forced to return to Mexico, says Trapp, a 3L from Duluth. Experts had documented that what happened to the family was consistent with what cartels have done and continue to do to terrorize citizens in Mexico, Meili says. 

“Something I learned in the clinic under Professor Meili’s guidance is the importance of using expert reports,” Trapp says. “We used research from organizations like Amnesty International and news articles. But it really helps bolster the argument to have academics who have written extensively on the conditions with cartel violence in Mexico.”

Trapp says she was lucky that the lottery system that assigns students in Minnesota Law clinics placed her in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, which was her top choice. Now as a student director, she assists Meili in supervising clinic students and also mentors them.

“It has been the most rewarding experience of my law school career because you get to work on really interesting cases with particularly empathetic and loving clients who really need creative, detailed legal help,” Trapp says of her clinic work.

Hauck says she chose Minnesota Law largely because of its robust clinical program. “I wanted to get practical experience during law school and I certainly have in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. We met with our clients weekly for months leading up to their hearing in Immigration Court.”

One of the unique features of Minnesota’s clinical programs is the student director model, which allows students to return to a clinic in their third year and assist with the supervision of new students.  

“Student directors like Kristin and Emily help retain the institutional memory of our cases from year to year,” Meili says. “They also provide continuity for clients who would otherwise have to adjust to a completely new student team each academic year. Especially for asylum-seekers, whose cases can go on for years, and whose lives have been completely turned upside down by the torture and other forms of trauma they survived in their home country, it’s important to have that kind of stability.”

The continuity means a lot to Trapp as well.

“I developed a relationship and a fondness for the clients and would miss them,” Trapp says. “So it’s nice to return because you get an opportunity to continue building those relationships which can take a lot longer than just one academic year.”

And according to Hauck, “We’re planning a virtual celebration with the family and all the students who worked on their case over the years. I am grateful to have been able to gain invaluable experience working on this case and to celebrate the win with our clients.”

By Todd Nelson, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

Steve Meili
Steve Meili
James H. Michael Chair in International Human Rights Law
Assistant Dean for Clinical Education
Professor of Law