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Asylum appeal takes Scalia Law students from the classroom to the courtroom

October 27, 2017   /   by Buzz McClain

Mason law students Paul Coyle and Anna Schaffner earned high praise for their work on securing asylum for a teen refugee who fled Honduras to escape criminal activity, violence and homelessness. Photo by Ron Aira.

Appealing the case of an undocumented immigrant from Honduras in the current political climate would be a daunting challenge for veteran legal experts.

But this summer, the fate of 19-year-old Carlos (not his real name) rested on the shoulders of two George Mason University law students working pro bono with a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Those students—Anna Schaffner and Paul Coyle—are studying law at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Schaffner was a summer associate at Wiley Rein LLP where Coyle was a legal assistant when they were asked to join a small team to develop the appeal for Carlos’ asylum. The request came from the Capital Area Immigrant’s Rights Coalition, a nonprofit that defends immigrants’ civil rights.

It was not the level of case the students were expecting while still studying law, they said.

“When I talked to [Wiley Rein’s] pro bono partner, Theodore Howard, he said that this was something important,” Coyle recalled.

“This was definitely out of the ordinary in that I got such substantive work when they let me take on the case,” Schaffner said.

The experience has stayed with them, they said.

Schaffner, who is from Pittsburgh, and Coyle, originally from Philadelphia, helped develop an argument that Carlos, abandoned by his mother in Honduras at age 12, was a member of a group of homeless street children pressed against their will into a gang. In 2015, the gang ordered Carlos, then 16, to commit a crime of which he was morally incapable. Refusal would be brutal, and possibly deadly. He fled to the United States instead.

Schaffner’s task, said Charles Lemley, an adjunct professor at Scalia Law and a partner at Wiley Rein, was to “compile a thorough, overwhelmingly persuasive factual basis for one of the most important aspects of our case: that Carlos would be highly likely to face persecution, torture and likely death if asylum were denied. I can’t overstate the importance of it.

“Anna is the one who put the facts together in a way that the judge could not possibly ignore the danger.”

Coyle’s role, among other duties, was to establish that Carlos had a viable support system in the United States.

“Because of Paul,” Lemley said, “we were able to demonstrate to the judge with specific evidence that Carlos had a solid network of people and organizations in place to keep him from falling through the cracks.”

Coyle’s work helped secure Carlos’ release on bond before the appeals trial.

“Paul worked magic on that front,” said Lemley. “His efforts were critical to the judge’s decision to permit Carlos, having just turned 19 years old, to experience life outside of detention for the first time since the age of 16.”

On July 18 an immigration judge decided in Carlos’ favor. Asylum was granted.

“I definitely took a lap around the office when we got the news,” Coyle said.

“Carlos is such a great person and we all cared so much about getting him the relief he deserves,” Schaffner said. “The whole team really worked very hard for Carlos.”

“Paul and Anna were instrumental in saving a courageous young man from a serious, specific and imminent threat of torture or death,” said Lemley. “Few lawyers can say that they have done so much in the course of an entire career, but I have every reason to believe this is just the first for these two.”