Minnesota Law

Fall 2022

Minnesota Law Students Help Honduran Trans Woman Win Asylum

After having experienced physical and sexual abuse in her native country, Rachell now has a permanent home in the United States through the efforts of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic

Srishtee Dear, 3L, Hannah McDonald, 3L, Prof. Steve Meili, Rachell (the clinic's client), Eura Chang '22, and Alena Carl '22.

During May 2022, while most law students were busy preparing for finals, law students at the Law School’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic were also preparing for an Immigration Court hearing for their client Rachell, who was applying for asylum.

Rachell, a 27-year-old trans woman from Honduras, arrived in the United States in 2018 following horrendous experiences of sexual and physical abuse in her home country, due largely to a pervasive culture of machismo or the societal belief in male dominance.

While in Honduras, a country with extremely high instances of trans murders and assaults, Rachell was persecuted by family members, MS-13 gang members, and police for her trans identity and her refusal to conform to a heterosexual normative lifestyle. Family members routinely physically, emotionally, and sexually abused Rachell and called her transphobic and homophobic slurs, often confusing her for a gay man. Rachell’s father forced her female friend to have sex with her in hopes of “turning” her heterosexual. This resulted in the birth of Rachell’s 7-year-old daughter, who remains in Honduras.

MS-13 gang members also targeted Rachell for her refusal to work as a drug smuggler for them. Gangs feel that trans women are inferior to men and resent them for refusing to conform to machismo. While they did not want Rachell to join the gang and “enjoy” gang privileges, MS-13 wanted to force her into servitude to conduct their criminal activities. MS-13 routinely threatened to kill Rachell for refusing to work for them. In 2016, MS-13 murdered two of her brothers. Gang members told Rachell that her brothers’ murders were due to her refusal to work for them.

Shortly before Rachell fled to the U.S., police officers approached her under the guise of conducting a routine check. Instead, two officers, in uniform and with weapons, violently physically and sexually abused Rachell. They told her they were sent by MS-13 to kill her for not working with the gang. MS-13 members even directed the officers over the phone.

Rachell managed to escape the police and left Honduras shortly thereafter and eventually came to the United States. After a brief detention, Rachell was then sponsored by a gay couple in Minnesota, where she felt like she could finally be accepted for the trans identity she fought so long to protect. The case was referred to the Law School’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic by the Advocates for Human Rights.

Asylum Granted

Student teams at the clinic spent the next two and a half years preparing her case, including conducting legal and country conditions for Honduras, gathering relevant evidence about Rachell’s experiences, and formulating arguments for why Rachell suffered past persecution and will suffer future persecution because of her trans identity if she were to return.

The U.S. government agreed to a grant of asylum for Rachell, which was signed by the Immigration Judge in July 2022. After three long years, Judge Katherine L. Hansen’s signature finally gave Rachell a chance at the life she always wanted, safe from the persecution of her trans identity in Honduras

For Rachell, her story, also documented by the Star Tribune, should be an inspiration to other trans Honduran women that it is possible to live their authentic selves in the United States.

Student Experience

Alena Carl , 3L, who worked on the case, says that seeing the obstacles faced by asylum applicants and the amount of time relief takes was eye-opening. “People who seek asylum here, like Rachell, are some of the strongest, most resilient people you will ever meet because of it,” Carl observes. “Being part of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic and having the honor of helping [and communicating directly] with such an amazing person get safety in this country was one of the best experiences I had in law school.”  

Eura Chang, 3L, who also assisted the case, saysit was an immense honor to have get to know Rachell, and see her case from the earlier stages all the way to receiving her asylum decision from the immigration judge.

“Rachell trusted the law clinic with her case, and the reality of her situation was more than a learning experience for me, it helped me fully understand the importance of what we do and the level of gravity we must have when it comes to our clients,” Chang observes. “I am so grateful that we were able to cultivate a trusting relationship with Rachell that resulted in such a positive outcome. I will never forget what it was like to be present when Rachell called her loved ones to notify them about the decision - the level of joy and relief in the room was palpable. Truly an unmatchable moment in my three years of law school!”

Srishtee Dear, 3L, who also worked on the case, says. “As an immigrant myself, I am so elated to have part of this rewarding process and to help give someone else a new beginning in this country. It was such a rewarding, challenging, and thought-provoking process that gave me great insight into the reality of client representation.”

Hannah McDonald, 3L, another member of the clinic team representing Rachell,says that working on the case allowed her touse her Spanish language skills to connect with a client, something that she hoped to do when she enrolled in law school. “By taking the time to communicate with her in her language, I feel we were able to help her feel less alone during an incredibly stressful and difficult time,” McDonald adds.

Clinic Director Stephen Meili, who together with Adjunct Professor Emily Good ’03, supervised the law students working on the case, says, “Several teams of students worked tirelessly over three years to bring this case to a resolution that afforded Rachell the protection to which she is entitled under both domestic and international law. I am so proud of all of them.”

Srishtee Dear, 3L, the author of this piece, is a #L and student attorney in clinic. This is a special online-only extra to the fall 2022 edition of Minnesota Law magazine.