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Joyous ending for USC Immigration Clinic client
USC Gould School of Law

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

After 16 years, court decision opens door to permanent residence in U.S.

By Leslie Ridgeway

2L Sophia Duenas’ client waited 16 years for removal of the threat of deportation and the possibility of earning a green card.

Nerves were high when 2L Sophia Duenas appeared in U.S. immigration court at an administrative hearing in fall 2021 – not just because it was the first time Duenas had ever appeared before a judge, but because her client, a Salvadoran woman living in Los Angeles, had been fighting to remain in the U.S. with representation by the USC Gould Immigration Clinic since 2004.

When the judge handed down a much-welcomed ruling that provisionally granted a “cancellation of removal” – a form of relief that removes the threat of deportation and puts the client on a two-year track to earn a green card – it was hard to observe normal courtroom decorum.

“(The client) was in shock,” says Duenas, the last of at least 17 USC Immigration Clinic students to represent the client. “She jumped up and gave me a big hug. We were so excited in the moment. She was crying. I cried, too. It’s absurd she had to wait this long but I’m happy she can finally have some peace.”

At 16 years, the case doesn’t qualify as the lengthiest one handled by the Immigration Clinic, but the number of delays was out of the ordinary.

“At the end of every academic year, students write transition memos to incoming students,” says Professor Niels Frenzen, co-director of the USC Immigration Clinic. “Yes, it is an extreme hassle that we’ve done 15 transition memos. It’s an outlier, but it is what it is. Things happen to cases and clients that we can’t predict.”

Frenzen, co-director Professor Jean Reisz and the students were also faced with changes in administrations and laws that affected their approaches. The client initially applied for asylum as a survivor of domestic violence in El Salvador, recognized as a basis for asylum by one administration but not a successive one, and then with the Biden administration, it was again under certain circumstances recognized as a basis for asylum.  In 2020, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Niz-Chavez v. Garland expanded eligibility for cancellation of removal, allowing the client to also pursue that form of relief. 

That decision helped Duenas make a better case for the client to remain in the U.S. because she is caring for her mother, who lives with dementia. Duenas presented testimony from Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Keck School of Medicine of USC professor of family medicine and geriatrics and a widely respected expert on care for the elderly.

“The case turned on this expert witness who could talk about what would happen if the client was removed,” says Duenas. “It was a huge deal to find Dr. Mosqueda. We are a pro bono clinic so we rely on people to volunteer their time and knowledge.”

Pro bono teaching clinics like the USC Immigration Clinic are a lifeline for people without resources. Frenzen estimates the cost of securing a private attorney over 16 years at $50,000. The client couldn’t even count on holding onto employment with numerous procedural delays and the last-minute nature of hearings.

“She’s a single mom trying to survive and support her kids and care for her mother,” says Reisz. “Not only did she have to wait a long time for relief, but to prepare her case and for multiple court hearings, she had to take off time from work, and she would sometimes lose her job.” 

As the attorney of record, the clinic will continue to represent the client throughout the green card process, and to help her renew her annual work permit. 

Frenzen and Reisz designed the clinic to give students experience working with clients who have experienced many types of trauma. Learning to detach while coping with law school and personal lives can be overwhelming, but Frenzen and Reisz impress upon students the importance of keeping a good life balance – always a challenge for attorneys. Still, any good attorney deals with nerves when they’re representing a client, Frenzen says.

“Jean and I get stressed when we go to court because we know what’s at stake and we care,” says Frenzen. “We always say to students, ‘The day I go to court and I don’t have a knot in my stomach means I’m not invested.’”

Duenas says appearing in the courtroom was intimidating but “a phenomenal experience” and gave her the confidence that she can succeed as a lawyer. Still, the ultimate outcome was the greatest reward of all.

“(The client) is so hard working and has this beautiful family, and she took her mother in to care for her full time. She is the image of an amazing American citizen and person,” Duenas says. “There’s no one more deserving – except for every single other immigrant who lives here fearing deportation.”

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