Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative
Wins Ninth Circuit Decision
Reverses Policy Harming Victims of Domestic Violence
By Laura Ernde
“We’re ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection, in line with our human rights obligations.” - Karen Musalo
Image: Brooke Anderson Photography
A unique coalition of San Francisco legal service organizations recently scored a victory at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that will make it easier for thousands more victims of domestic violence to seek asylum in the U.S.
Maria Luisa Rodriguez Tornes, a Mexican citizen, suffered a lifetime of severe abuse from her mother, her estranged husband, and her boyfriend because in their view she wasn’t submissive enough to the men in her life. In April, the court found that Rodriguez Tornes was eligible for asylum based on her mistreatment. The court rejected arguments advanced during the Trump Administration that to win asylum she needed to also prove a connection between her abuse and her political opinions.
But things might have turned out very differently without the help of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, whose partner organizations worked together from the outset all the way through to the appeal, said Milli Atkinson, director of the Immigrant Legal Defense Program at the Justice and Diversity Center (JDC) of the Bar Association of San Francisco. As the legal coordinator for the collaborative, JDC holds monthly meetings for the member organizations and maintains a database of cases.
The city-funded collaborative, established in 2015, paved the way for local legal services organizations to represent clients in removal proceedings, which until then was a rare occurrence, she said. Immigrants have the right to an attorney, but the government doesn’t provide one and most asylum-seekers don’t have the resources to pay for representation, which can run $10,000 to $20,000 and are often lengthy and complicated.
...Zealous representation combined with our technical assistance—which helps attorneys develop legal theories and build a strong evidentiary record—makes a difference..." — Blaine Bookey
Rodriguez Tornes’ case began in 2017 when she was arrested at the border attempting to come back to the U.S. because she feared for her safety. After serving a six-month federal sentence for illegal reentry, she was being held at Contra Costa County’s West County Detention Center in Richmond when Dolores Street Community Services in San Francisco learned of her plight.
Immigration attorney Kelly Engel Wells, who now works as a deputy public defender for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Immigration Defense Unit, represented Rodriguez Tornes at the initial proceedings before a San Francisco immigration judge.
Wells knew the case would be difficult because of a pending decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding asylum-seekers escaping domestic violence. When Sessions’ issued his decision known as Matter of A-B- three weeks after Kelly began her representation, declaring people like her client “generally” should not receive asylum, another member of the San Francisco collaborative, the UC Hastings Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS), stepped in to offer technical assistance on how Wells might rethink her legal strategy.
Wells built a strong case and a San Francisco immigration judge granted asylum to Rodriguez Tornes, but the victory was short-lived when the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals reversed, citing the Matter of A-B-.
Again, the collaborative marshaled the resources needed to keep the case going. The Tahirih Justice Center worked on the appeal with the help of Munger Tolles and Olson attorneys working pro bono. CGRS wrote an amicus brief in support of Rodriguez Tornes.
“This case is a really good example to show how zealous representation combined with our technical assistance—which helps attorneys develop legal theories and build a strong evidentiary record—makes a difference,” said the center’s legal director Blaine Bookey. “In the end, the judges were swayed by the meticulous record. They couldn’t ignore that.”
It shows that even though immigration is federal, local and state governments can have an impact. We can stand up for our values, our morals here in San Francisco." — Milli Atkinson
Atkinson said the positive outcome also shows how locally funded programs such as the collaborative can have an impact on individuals locally and across the country. Until the collaborative launched in 2015, it was unusual for local nonprofits to represent immigrants in removal proceedings. Since then, the collaborative has represented 1,300 individuals before the San Francisco Immigration Court.
“It shows that even though immigration is federal, local and state governments can have an impact,” Atkinson said. “We can stand up for our values, our morals here in San Francisco.”
Atkinson also praised Rodriguez Tornes for sticking with the case throughout the lengthy court process.
“Her willingness to fight for her rights and continue with the case through all the appeals is going to have an impact on thousands of other people,” Atkinson said. “I have so much respect for our client because this isn’t an easy process. It’s very draining and a lot of people just give up. She was willing to push through and do everything she needed to do.”
In June, on the heels of the Ninth Circuit ruling, Attorney General Merrick Garland formally vacated the Matter of A-B- and two other rulings that sought to block asylum for people escaping gender-based violence, gang brutality, and persecution against families.
We’re ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection, in line with our human rights obligations." — Karen Musalo
Karen Musalo, director of CGRS and co-counsel in Matter of A-B-, applauded Garland’s decision. She and other advocates for women and asylum seekers saw it as major progress by the Biden administration to rebuild the asylum system after the Trump administration’s broader assault on immigrant communities and women’s rights.
“Now is time to build on this progress,” Musalo said. “We’re ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection, in line with our human rights obligations.”
Laura Ernde is a San Francisco-based writer and communications consultant. She has covered legal affairs for more than a decade, as a journalist and former editor of the California Bar Journal.