Minnesota Law

Spring 2024
For the Record

Immigration and Human Rights Clinic Wins Asylum for Afghan Woman

The Immigration and Human Rights Clinic team from L to R: Luke Srodulski '24, Mikaela Smith '25, client Saima Fazli, Harshita Kalidindi '25, Mackenzie Heinrich '18, and Amelia Lizarraga '24.
Photo: Tony Nelson

In 2021, Saima Fazli was one of more than 124,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge. Fleeing Taliban rule, Fazli and her family came to the United States. While her mother and siblings qualified to be on her father’s Special Immigration Visa, Fazli was just a few months over the cutoff age of 21 to be included.

That’s where the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic came in to help. In its fourth decade, the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic was the first immigration-focused clinic at Minnesota Law. It is now one of four immigration clinics housed within the Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans. Fazli worked with Binger Center partner The Advocates for Human Rights to be paired for pro bono representation with the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, which focuses on representation for asylum seekers.

The clinic began working on Fazli’s affirmative asylum case early in 2023. By December last year, she was scheduled for an asylum interview with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which took place in January. In late March, the 24-year-old was granted asylum. She can soon apply for her Green Card as she continues on the pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Mackenzie Heinrichs ’18 is an immigration and human rights clinical fellow and visiting assistant clinical professor of law in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. She supervised the clinical student attorneys working on Fazli’s case.

“Immigration law is not just challenging, but awkward, because you have to ask people really personal questions about themselves,” says Mackenzie. “I always notice students greatly improve their ability to interview and their rapport with the client. It was hard with Saima at first because she’s a quieter person, not outgoing, and you could tell sometimes that she was uncomfortable. But by the end, she liked all the students and had a great relationship with everybody. I think everybody on the team did really well. They were kind and understanding. You could tell they were rooting for her, which helped her succeed.”

Growing up in Afghanistan, Fazli had little schooling and hadn’t done anything independently of her family until she came to the U.S., where she now has a job and has had to navigate the legal system.

“When I first started working with my attorneys, I was really nervous because I have never done anything like this before,” Fazli says. “I was really shy in the beginning, and I didn’t always know what to say or feel confident speaking with them. But now, I have so much confidence because of working with my attorneys. I no longer feel so shy, and I can share things openly with them.

“My attorneys are like my family, like siblings, because I have shared my story with them,” she continues. “I am here now because of my attorneys; they have encouraged me and given me confidence."

The students who worked on Fazli’s case — including clinic student directors Amelia Lizarraga ’24 and Luke Srodulski ’24 — marveled at how she had become a totally different person throughout the case. However, Lizarraga said gaining Fazli’s trust took time.

Clinic client Saima Fazli with her mother Zarghona Fazli.

“It helps that Luke, Mackenzie, and I have all been on this case since last year,” said Lizarraga. “So, she got to know us well. I think that helped build a lot of her confidence and she typically brings at least her mother to meetings. That also helps her stay comfortable. We always make sure we're listening to her story, encouraging her where we can, and giving her the confidence to speak for herself. For a long time, she didn't want to give us an answer. She would look to her mom for the answers.”

“Working with Saima has been the most impactful part of my law school career because it's someone's actual life more or less in your hands,” Lizarraga adds. “And you're making a real difference. It's not just the doctrinal classes that you learn, move on from, and then take the bar. It’s about applying your skills in real life.”

As Fazli’s confidence grew, so did that of the students, says Srodulski.

“Coming into law school, I found there might be this impression that if you're working with a law school clinic, you're not in as capable hands because you're working with a lot of people who haven't passed the Bar and who aren’t actually lawyers yet,” he says. “Yet, there are a lot of lawyers who are balancing a bunch of cases, where we could focus on this one case, and we all had each other. There were a lot of hands-on deck for this. It was a reminder that we're capable of doing this work regardless of how early on we are in our careers.”

Harshita Kalidindi ’25 was struck by how close in age the student attorneys are to Fazli. It was especially arresting for her to think of all the hardships Fazli has gone through, and the tremendous difference the country you live in makes in your life.

“My parents moved here from India, so the struggle of immigration is something I've seen within my family,” saysKalidindi. “I knew that, coming into the legal field, I would work mostly in corporate, but it's nice to have a few experiences with immigration. It’s very important work that has immediate results that you can see in people's lives. You can give someone so much power just by listening to their story and helping them.”

Working in the clinic had such an impact on Mikaela Smith ’25 she’s starting to rethink her career path.

“I have a lot of experience in the policy side for gender-based violence and other human rights issues,” says Smith. “I was drawn to working more of an individual advocacy level and gaining experience working outside of policy. Working with Saima changed some of my thoughts on my future career and pushed me towards working more on advocacy rather than policy. I'm grateful to have had this experience and to explore that interest of mine.”

Now that she has asylum,Fazliis excited to think about all the possibilities that lie ahead. She’d like to stay in the U.S. and finish her education.

 “I am taking English classes one day a week through my work, and I hope in the future I can take more classes,” she says. “I am also learning how to drive, and I hope to get a driver’s license soon. I am also hoping to find a new job in the future and have a career.”

None of that would have been possible if she had stayed in Afghanistan where under Taliban rule women aren’t allowed such freedoms, notes Heinrichs.

“The difference is very stark between getting permanent residency in the US to stay here versus being in Afghanistan,” she says. “It's basically the difference between being able to have freedom to live your life in the way that you choose versus having to be in the house constantly or, possibly, death.”

“Seeing how the immigration system affects a person was a real eye-opener,” adds Srodulski. “I'm thrilled that it ended positively because a lot of the times, despite our best efforts, it doesn't.”

 Learn more:

Minnesota Law Students, Faculty, and Staff Provide Legal Support to Afghan Refugees

If you are an Afghan in need of legal help, visit the Advocates for Human Rights