In the late 90’s, about 1997, before I left my private law practice in Washington, D.C. to teach at the Barry University School of Law School I was approached by a new, potential client. I will call her Ms. Z. Ms. Z had arrived in the United States a week earlier from Germany. She told me she needed a lawyer. Here’s why.
Ms. Z had obtained a visa from one of our American consulates in Germany allowing her to travel to the U.S. as a tourist. Upon arriving at the port of entry in Washington, D.C. she told the immigration officials that she did not really come to the U.S. to be a tourist. Instead she asked the officials to grant her asylum in the U.S. The inspectors were surprised and detained her for an interview. In order to gain asylum in the United States one must prove to the immigration authorities that they have been persecuted in their home country or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or one’s standing in a particular social group.
Ms. Z was put in detention for several days while they investigated. After hearing her story, which I will relate a bit later, the inspectors found that she might have a “credible claim” for asylum. They released her on her own recognizance and gave her a “Notice to Appear” in Immigration Court on a date two weeks away. They also gave her a “lawyers list” provided by the U.S. State Department of Washington, D.C. lawyers who might represent indigent asylum seekers for little or no money.
Because it begins with a “B” my name, Birdsong, was at the top of the list. Ms. Z sought me out at my office. I learned that Ms. Z had been in the U.S. one week, had less than $900 and was staying at the Washington YWCA. She spoke fairly good English and very good German. She was a small woman with lots of black curly hair. I thought her to be somewhat attractive in a “gypsy” sort of way. She was surprised to learn that I spoke some German and had previously been stationed in Hamburg, Germany as a U.S. State Department officer. We talked. She said she wanted me to represent her in immigration court. I told her she did not have enough money for my representation. She demanded. I refused… however, I listened to her case.
Ms. Z was actually a citizen of Romania. She had fled Romania in the early 90’s when the communist government of Romania collapsed. She had worked at the Romanian National Museum as a cataloguer. She had obtained her education and her job because she had joined the communist party when a teenager. With the communists out of power she feared that there might be reprisals against her by a new government.
As a result, she fled to Germany. After being there 18 months Germany granted her asylum and granted her a “laissez passé” or “travel document” that permitted her to travel outside of Germany. She learned German, got a job cleaning houses, and tried to keep a low profile. However, she did attend several rallies protesting the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany. She claimed that after one of these protests a group of young skin head neo-Nazis followed her to her home. They taunted her claiming she must be a Jew for attending such a rally. She was not Jewish. Nevertheless she was frightened by these skin head thugs.
Over the next few months groups of skin head neo-Nazis continued to taunt her when she left her apartment or when she came home. There came a point when they threw eggs at her second floor apartment windows. She believed they even broke in once when she was not home because food was missing. She became more frightened, she complained to her landlord. Ultimately she went to the German police. They told her there was nothing they could do, especially since she was not Jewish.
The taunts continued. She was never physically accosted, however her tormentors started taunting her by calling her a “Stauffenburg.” Count Von Stauffenburg was the German military officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler near the end of World War II with a bomb. Ms. Z decided she must leave Germany for her own protection. She flew to the United States and sought asylum in the U.S. because she was fleeing persecution at the hands of neo-Nazis who believed she was Jewish and a threat to them. I refused her case on the ground she had little money. She offered to work for me in my office as free paralegal for several weeks if I would only represent her.
Unfortunately, I relented and did let her work for me as a paralegal for the two weeks leading up to her immigration court hearing. Up to this time I had had a wonderful record of representing clients in the two Washington area branches of the U.S. immigration courts over a period of several years. I had gained asylum grants for the clients in nineteen of the nineteen cases I had taken to trial. However, I told Ms. Z that her case involved concepts known as political opinion, imputed political opinion and mixed motive asylum claims. These types of cases were among the most difficult cases in which one could expect to obtain asylum for a client. I also told her that she had already been given asylum in Germany and this was usually a bar to obtaining asylum in the U.S. After prepping her for the hearing she agreed that if it appeared that she would not be granted asylum that I would be allowed to request that she be given “voluntary departure.” This is a discretionary form of relief that an immigration judge may grant that will avoid deportation and allow the asylum claimant to leave the U.S. at his or her own expense within 60 days.
As I had surmised, the hearing did not go well. We had drawn the toughest immigration judge on the entire court. The judge listened to my proffer of what Ms. Z’s evidence would show if she went to trial. To say the judge was befuddled and a bit bemused would be an understatement. The judge had before her a Romanian citizen who had been already granted asylum in Germany, who was fleeing Germany because she was allegedly being persecuted by neo-Nazis who thought she was Jewish, when she wasn’t, and had the fortune to find that the first lawyer on the lawyers list given her was an African American who spoke German. The judge suggested that I might ask for another form of relief for my client. I promptly requested that the judge grant Ms. Z voluntary departure from the United States within sixty days. To my great surprise, the judge did just that. To my greater surprise the judge did not ask Ms. Z to provide bond to show that she would leave as expected. Instead, the toughest judge on the court continued Ms. Z’s release on her personal recognizance.
Ms. Z and I took a taxi back to my office where she collected her belongings, thanked me and left. I never made a dime on the case and I have never seen nor heard from her since. However, I have often wondered whether she really ever voluntarily left the United States. It is my assumption that with her gumption and brashness she is still living in the States and probably married to an American citizen. Stranger things have happened.