When Alain Nangha Nangha left Cameroon in late 2014, he was fleeing for his life. Traveling nearly 6,000 miles via Mexico to the California border, he presented himself to U.S. officials and asked for asylum. He had no idea what awaited him. He just knew that he needed to be safe.
“I left my country because they wanted to kill me because I’m bisexual,” said Nangha Nangha, now a client of the Immigration Clinic at the USC Gould School of Law. “The U.S. protects people like me.”
In Cameroon, where it is illegal to be gay, Nangha Nangha had been caught by the police in his house with his boyfriend. Afraid the police were going to kill him or throw him in prison, he ran from his home, leaving behind four children and a thriving restaurant business.
According to Jean Reisz ’05, the clinic’s Audrey Irmas Clinical Teaching Fellow, Nangha Nangha had sound reasons to flee.
“The penalty for cases like this in Cameroon is five years in prison. Once imprisoned, many prisoners suspected of being homosexual are tortured and ill-treated,” she said.
By presenting himself for asylum at the border, Nangha Nangha did exactly what asylum seekers should do, yet he was detained by U.S. immigration authorities.
U.S. law requires border officials to conduct so-called credible fear interviews for those who express a fear of persecution.
“U.S. law requires border officials to conduct so-called credible fear interviews for those who express a fear of persecution or an intent to apply for asylum,” Reisz said.
Nangha Nangha’s case is one of 60 currently being handled by 10 students at the USC Immigration Clinic. According to the clinic’s director, Niels Frenzen, 15 of these cases are in immigration court, others will go before the Board of Immigration Appeals and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the remainder are visa and green card petitions and other nonlitigation matters.
15 years and going strong
In January, the year-round USC clinic — the only one of its kind among Southern California law schools — will mark its 15th year of offering representation to asylum clients such as Nangha Nangha. Since 2001, the clinic has taken on more than 170 clients. Approximately 120 of them, one-third of whom identify as LGBT, have received either asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture.
While the Immigration Clinic clients receive life-saving legal representation, its students receive valuable experience. In Nangha Nangha’s case, which was heard in U.S. Immigration Court, third-year law student Amy Stern, acting pursuant to the Immigration Court student practice rules, served as the lead representative.
Nangha Nangha’s case was the first that Stern handled from start to finish. She credits the clinic with giving her “amazing real-world experience,” which she was able to apply to her summer associate duties at Winston & Strawn, where she worked on matters relating to corporate litigation and employment.
We try to get every student into court to conduct a full administrative trial.
“We try to get every student into court to conduct a full administrative trial,” Frenzen said. “These are real clients and real judges.”
Students enroll in the clinical course for one year, with a limited number able to enroll in an advanced clinical component the following year. Stern returned this fall as a supervising student able to share her expertise with the clinic’s new students.
Over the years, USC Gould students have represented individuals fighting for asylum who are victims of torture, rape and severe violence. The clinic’s student-lawyers represent clients from Africa, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and South and Central America.
Stern first met Nangha Nangha, whose primary language is French, in February while he was in detention at the Santa Ana City Jail.
When I got [an attorney], I was so happy that I couldn’t sleep.
Alain Nangha Nangha
“When I got [an attorney], I was so happy that I couldn’t sleep,” recalled Nangha Nangha, who would have had to represent himself at his hearing if not for the Immigration Clinic.
Stern estimates that she spent about 50 to 60 hours on his case, conducting legal research, writing his declaration and preparing him for his hearing.
“We had to anticipate questions that could poke holes in his case so he would be ready for the ICE prosecutor’s questioning in court,” Stern recalled. “This courtroom experience was invaluable, as it was the first time that I had to prepare and present opening and closing statements in court to a judge.”
Their hard work paid off when the judge granted Nangha Nangha asylum on March 30. The next pressing essentials were finding him a place to live, a work permit and ultimately a Social Security number, all with assistance from Stern and the Immigration Clinic.
But it’s the sweet taste of freedom that Nangha Nangha savors.
“I’ll never forget how I felt when I learned I was granted asylum,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
“Never in my life will I forget.”