Last May, Aaron Gonzalez-Rodriguez was pulled over in Charleston for turning left on a yellow arrow.
For most people, it would have been a nuisance, a fine to pay or fight.
For Gonzalez-Rodriguez, it was a life-altering mistake.
He ended up in a Pennsylvania jail, staring helplessly at his wife and two young daughters as they wailed on the other side of the glass partition.
So began a journey toward an unlikely, and rare, decision in favor of an undocumented worker – a decision that came about because of the work of the Immigration Law Clinic at West Virginia University.
There are several programs within the College of Law's Clinical Law Program:
Immigration Law Clinic
Entrepreneurship Law Clinic
Civil Law Clinic
The Innocence Project
Gonzalez-Rodriguez had entered the country without documents in 1994 when he was just 13 years old, crossing the border between the United States and Mexico. For the next 16 years he lived quietly, working mostly menial restaurant jobs in Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia, and keeping out of trouble. But he wasn’t an American citizen. He didn’t have a driver’s license. And now the government knew it.
His wife, Jessica Gonzalez, was adamant: No one was going to split up her family. If her husband had to go back to Mexico, they would all go with him. But he wasn’t going without a fight.
She scoured the Internet until she came across a story in the Charleston Daily Mail about the Immigration Law Clinic at West Virginia University’s College of Law. The clinic had been representing clients in immigration proceedings, pro bono, since 1996. Often, they represented them successfully, helping clients navigate the country’s maze of immigration laws.
Gonzalez wrote the school a letter.
When it arrived, those at the clinic knew immediately that Gonzalez-Rodriguez was kind of person their program existed to help, but the question was: Could they help him?
Could they turn what appeared to be the biggest tragedy of a man’s life into a happy ending?
Just one week before Gonzalez-Rodriguez was scheduled to appear in immigration court, he met his lawyers for the first time: WVU visiting assistant professor Shelley Cavalieri, and law students Angela Brunicardi-Doss and Ryan Posey.
Click below to listen to Shelley Cavalieri discuss the importance of the Immigration Law Clinic:
[ Download as MP3 File ]
Cavalieri had just moved to West Virginia to become co-director of the legal clinic. Brunicardi-Doss and Posey were third-year students still months away from graduation and bar exams.
Their first order of business was to decide on the legal strategy for Gonzalez-Rodriguez. They quickly and unanimously agreed on one: cancellation of removal.
It’s a form of relief available only to those who are involved in deportation proceedings, and then only under certain circumstances. Cavalieri, Brunicardi-Doss and Posey were going to have to prove that Gonzalez-Rodriguez had been living in the United States, continuously, for 10 years, that he didn’t have a criminal record, that he was a person of good moral character and that his removal would cause exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to his immediate family.
The first three are, typically, the easiest to prove. Gonzalez-Rodriguez didn’t have legal documents to show how long he’d been living in the U.S., but he did have 16 years worth of doctor’s receipts, membership cards and acquaintances that proved his residency. He’d never been arrested. And they had no trouble showing that Gonzalez-Rodriguez was a good person.
“His good moral character oozes out of his pores,” Cavalieri said.
He had married his wife, who is deaf, after communicating with her almost solely through scribbled notes, text messages and the little finger spelling she’d managed to teach him. After they had two daughters, Gonzalez-Rodriguez patiently learned to braid their hair and became the liaison between their girls and their mother, who can’t speak to each other without help from an interpreter.
It was this information the WVU team used to help prove the final, and most difficult, tenet of their defense: exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.
Without Gonzalez-Rodriguez in their lives, Gonzalez and her daughters wouldn’t be able to communicate. And if they all moved to Mexico, as Gonzalez promised they would, the situation would be even worse.
Gonzalez would have to quit college, where she was a computer science and business management student. She would live in silent isolation, unable to read or write Spanish or communicate in Mexico’s version of sign language (it is wholly different from American Sign Language). Her toddler daughters, MacKenzie and Renae, would likely pick up Spanish quickly living in Mexico, but they would be far from the specialists needed to treat a heart defect and the quality schools needed to treat a developmental delay.
The family had to stay together, and they had to stay in the United States. Cavalieri was hopeful the judge in Philadelphia’s immigration court, where the case was heard, would agree.
“This is a person you’d want as an American citizen, as your neighbor, as your employee, as the coach of your kid’s soccer team,” Cavalieri said. “Aaron is the poster child for this type of relief.”
There is a reason WVU chose Shelley Cavalieri as the co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic. She had a history of clerking for judges. She knew them. She understood them. She could share her experience with students.
But her experience came with a caveat: It taught her that justice can be a crapshoot. Sometimes cases, no matter how hard you try them, don’t turn out like you planned. Sometimes decisions are just wrong.
“It’s a little like making sausage,” Cavalieri said. “You don’t always believe what comes out the other end.”
Brunicardi-Doss understood this. She knew that justice was, ultimately, left in the hands of fallible human beings. If mistakes could happen in criminal court, where the accused are afforded more rights and protections, what kind of chaos could befall Gonzalez-Rodriguez in immigration court?
On the day of the hearing, she was so nervous she felt like throwing up. This was going to be the best day of Gonzalez-Rodriguez’s life, or the worst.
Posey was certain it would be the former. She was confident in the facts. She knew the case they’d presented was unusually solid. Even if she’d allowed her affection for the Gonzalez-Rodriguez family to color her feelings about the outcome, she’d gotten reassurances from other WVU third-year students – Carter Lloyd and Dirk Kelley, who played devil’s advocates as the team prepared for the hearing – that the defense was strong.
She was certain they’d win.
And that worried Cavalieri. The threshold for the kind of relief they were seeking was extremely high and the outcome they were hoping for, rare.
In the hours before the judge gave his decision, she planned a speech for her students, hoping her words might be able to soften an unexpected blow. They’d fallen in love with this family. They’d tried the case with untempered passion. They’d stood up for someone who needed them and didn’t ask for anything in return. There was good in that, no matter the verdict.
And she promised Gonzalez-Rodriguez that, even if that verdict wasn’t the one they’d hoped for, the fight wouldn’t be over. She was already planning to appeal.
In the end, Cavalieri didn’t need to say anything. The judge not only granted cancellation of removal, but the relief also included adjustment of status, which meant Gonzalez-Rodriguez would receive a green card and, in five years, citizenship.
Gonzalez-Rodriguez has plans.
He wants to get his GED. He wants to be a soccer coach. He wants to open a restaurant.
He can dream all of these dreams now because he’s going to have documents.
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Gonzalez-Rodriguez said of his legal team. “Without them, I had nobody.”
This is, quite literally, true. If the Immigration Law Clinic had not taken his case, Gonzalez-Rodriguez would have represented himself. In immigration court, immigrants are not guaranteed representation. If they don’t have the money for an attorney, they often don’t get justice.
Gonzalez-Rodriguez got justice anyway.
“The Immigration Law Clinic serves clients with immigration problems, including significant human rights issues,” she said. “Our students, supervised by faculty, provide legal assistance to those who could not otherwise afford this help or for whom no other help is available. The benefit to clients and the lawyering skills acquired by our students embrace the core philosophy of a land grant institution.”
The Gonzalez-Rodriquez team is still simmering in the afterglow.
The case was one of two the law clinic won in Philadelphia that day, so the victories have received a lot of attention. Brunicardi-Doss still grins when she remembers how the judge called her and Posey, “counselors.” Posey still e-mails Gonzalez to chat. Cavalieri is still awed by the moral and monetary support the clinic received from the law school dean and WVU administration. They all still gush over the Gonzalez-Rodriguez girls, and how adorable they looked in their matching outfits at the hearing.
But real life is catching up with them, too. Cavalieri is considering cases for next semester. Brunicardi-Doss and Posey are plowing through finals and worrying about the bar exam. Soon they’ll be applying for jobs.
Cavalieri has already planned what she’ll tell their future employers when they call for a reference: “If I were in removal proceedings, these are the people I’d want as my lawyers.”
By April Johnston
WVU News and Information Services
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