Law School Clinic Gets Gay Russian U.S. Asylum

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A gay man last month became one of the first Russian citizens granted asylum in the United States since their home country adopted a ban against gay "propaganda."

The man was granted asylum Nov. 20 by a U.S. Immigration Court judge in York, Pa., thanks to the efforts of a team of students working with Villanova University School of Law's Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services, or CARES.

The Russian, whose name was redacted from court documents, took advantage of the visa reciprocity between Russia and Cuba, taking a "vacation" to Cuba. From there he made it to Mexico and then used the compass on his phone to cross the Rio Grande into the United States, where he was picked up by border patrol in June. He immediately sought asylum.

The man ended up in the York County detention facility and the case was referred to CARES, which is directed by law professor Michele Pistone.

Since the mid-1990s, the York County jail has rented out space to the United States to house immigrant detainees. Early on, it became clear the detainees were too far from legal assistance, Ms. Pistone said. So the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center was set up right down the road. PIRC offers detainees seminars on their rights and the Russian refugee attended one such seminar and was connected with CARES, Ms. Pistone said.

She said it is a tough road for asylum seekers in the United States. Often they enter illegally. And for their client, he was commingled with the York County jail's regular criminal population by the end of his stay at the facility, Ms. Pistone said.

"It's really a lot of work just to represent an asylum seeker, but especially someone who is in detention an hour and a half away," Ms. Pistone said.

Any time third-year law students Michelle L. Majkut and Joseph W. Catuzzi wanted to ask their client a simple question, they had to get their interpreter — Russian-born Igor Ponomarev, who volunteered to serve as an interpreter without credit throughout the whole case — and drive to the jail and back.

While it may have been a traumatic experience for the Russian refugee, Ms. Pistone said being in jail may have sped up the asylum process. Ms. Pistone said the backlog for a hearing in immigration courts for those not in jail can be two years.

Ms. Pistone's client, meanwhile, had his hearing less than six months from when he entered the country.

Immigration proceedings are not public, so it's impossible to know how many, if any, other Russians were granted asylum in the United States because of the persecution of gays in Russia. Ms. Majkut said that while there may have been a few people granted asylum under affirmative proceedings — those where they are in the country legally and meeting with an immigration officer to seek asylum — her client might be one of, if not the, first defensive asylum seeker to be granted asylum.

Ms. Majkut worked with Immigration Equality and the Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center for research on this case. She said those organizations have seen an influx of gay Russians calling with questions about asylum as well as the number of Russians defensively seeking asylum, meaning they are already detained and are facing adversarial proceedings.

Ms. Majkut said those organizations have upwards of 50 cases similar to her client's that are pending in immigration court.

The day asylum was granted, the jail was set to release the Russian with a one-way ticket to Harrisburg, Pa. Ms. Pistone said the students objected, given their client had no money and no contacts in Harrisburg. Instead, they decided to take him back to Villanova.

When their client walked out of the jail on a day late in November, the students also realized that, since he came to the United States in the summer, he only had shorts and flip flops. They stopped on their way back to campus and got him a new outfit, then the students raised money to put him up in a hotel for a few days and buy him a new wardrobe, Ms. Pistone said.

The client has been working with the immigration-focused public interest firm HIAS Pennsylvania to get benefits the government pays to refugees. He has since found an apartment and is looking for work, Ms. Pistone said.

Since Ms. Pistone created CARES in 2000, the clinic has helped more than 125 people receive asylum in the United States.

Gina Passarella: gpassarella@alm.comcan or 215-557-2494. Read more stories like this at

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