Determined to make a difference, Boston College Law School LLM student Bianca Difini ‘18 has prevailed in her first case defending an asylum seeker’s right to stay in the United States.

Difini is from Brazil, where she had worked as a judicial clerk for six years before deciding to attend BC Law. When Difini first arrived in the United States, she felt that she had to get involved in the crackdown on immigration law. She contacted Professor Paulo Barrozo, who directed her to local organizations that helped immigrants from Brazil who were seeking legal status. Difini started volunteering at these organizations, which she describes as her “first contact with immigration law and its huge impact on people’s lives.”

Difini then reached out to Susan Simone Kang, Director of International Programs, for more opportunities to pursue immigration advocacy at BC Law. Under the supervision of Professor Kari Hong, Difini then filed a brief with the Board of Immigration Appeals, asking the agency to reverse the decision of the Immigration Judge who denied relief to her client Mr. A, who was fleeing from violence in his native country in Africa. Within three weeks, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a decision agreeing with Difini’s arguments that the Immigration Judge had wrongly denied asylum.

Mr. A’s father is a tribal chief who enforced his tribe’s right to land over claims of another tribe. When the courts favored Mr. A’s tribe, the other tribe sought retribution by attempting to assassinate Mr. A’s father, physically beating up Mr. A and his brothers, burning down Mr. A’s house, and shooting bullets into Mr. A’s bedroom, missing him only because Mr. A was not in his room at the time. Mr. A fled to the United States and asked for asylum at the border. After an asylum officer found him credible, he went before an Immigration Judge where he represented himself and presented newspaper articles that mentioned his father and the opposing tribe by name. The judge denied the asylum claim on the basis that Mr. A had not brought more proof to explain why his father received a new name when he became tribal chief. The country condition reports prepared by the State Department failed to mention the harm against Mr. A and his family, and the judge was satisfied that the local police could protect Mr. A from harm.

“Working on this asylum case was one of the best experiences that I have had in the United States,” Difini said. “This hands-on experience taught me much more than I could learn reading books or attending classes. It was an enormous challenge, because I did not have any experience and knowledge in this field and I was dealing with a real case, with a client -- and Professor – who trusted me to do this job. I had to study all about the asylum process as well as the culture and customs of my client country. Learning about my client’s country and culture was really interesting and important for my case. I also learned that the discretion of the immigration judge plays a huge role in an asylum case, making the theory in books be quite different from the reality.”

“Bianca’s work on the brief was terrific,” Professor Hong said. “She combed the record and found important factual errors that the judge relied on when denying asylum. She then spent hours researching the law of many circuits to find cases that showed how the judge also made legal errors.” Difini’s defense included arguments that the judge wrongfully did not credit Mr. A’s father with having a new name when newspaper articles and family photographs corroborated Mr. A’s testimony, that the judge wrongfully expected general country condition reports to document every single instance of harm that occurs in a country, and that the judge ignored newspaper articles of how the local police were involved in a bribery scheme that let criminals free. 

“The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with the arguments that Bianca had developed. She proved to be a very effective advocate and made a difference for her client,” Hong said. Bradley Jenkins, who is the manager of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc's Board of Immigration Appeals Pro Bono Project, had screened this case and assigned it to Boston College Law School. He noted that the decision was "A powerhouse opinion - modeled from a powerhouse brief."

“The most surprising thing I learned from this experience was the vulnerability of the asylum seekers, Difini said. “First, they decide to leave their country, families, jobs and everything they have because they are vulnerable to an ineffective protection from their home country. Then, when they seek asylum [in the United States], they are totally vulnerable to the procedures of the immigration court.” Difini expressed frustration in reading about her client’s experience in having to prove his case in detention, without a lawyer’s assistance, and with practical limitations in gathering evidence from his native country while detained in this one.

“We are living an important moment for immigration law, not just in the United States but globally,” she said. “The entire world has been affected and touched by the refugee crisis. . . . I believe that it is a unique moment to work with immigration and to reestablish some principles and ideas. I would love to be part of this effort and to contribute to the evolution of this field.”

The client will get a new hearing before the immigration judge. A final decision on his asylum claim is expected within 6 months.