Agency stands up for immigrants' rights

David Holthouse
Robin Bronen is executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project. She is pictured here addressing new citizens at a citizenship ceremony in 2010 at the federal building in Anchorage.
Erik Hill
Nigerian playwright and journalist Ademola Bello was granted asylum in the United States with the help of attorney Conor Hallisy and AIJP.
Erik Hill

Stanislav Teodrovich had a good excuse for missing classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He'd been shot.

Originally from Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East, Teodrovich moved to Anchorage in September 2007 to pursue a degree in business accounting at UAA. He had a foreign exchange student visa.

On Aug. 22, 2009, two days before the UAA fall semester began, Teodrovich, then 20, was shot and critically wounded in a road rage incident near Fourth Avenue and Gambell Street. He spent the next 34 days in the hospital, which forced him to drop his classes.

The police charged the other driver, then 19-year-old Pesamino Faamasino, with first-degree assault and first-degree robbery. Faamasino was driving a car a woman told police he'd stolen from her at gunpoint. Witnesses said he shot Teodrovich in a fury after the Russian citizen accidentally cut him off in early morning traffic.

In the eyes of Alaska state law, Teodrovich was an innocent victim. Federal immigration law was another matter.

His student visa was revoked in February 2010 after Teodrovich did not enroll for the spring semester.

"The advice of my doctors was to not attend classes in order to fully recuperate physically and psychologically," he said.

The international student adviser at UAA recommended that Teodrovich contact the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants and refugees. Project staff helped Teodrovich begin preparing a petition for a U visa, a special circumstances visa for immigrants who are victims of certain violent crimes in the United States. Only 10,000 such visas are issued each fiscal year. The application process is complex.

Before he completed the petition, Teodrovich was arrested for being in the country illegally. Immigrations Customs and Enforcement agents came to his apartment. "They put me in handcuffs, and then once I was in jail downtown, they put me in shackles," he said.

Teodrovich was held for 10 days until an AIJP staff attorney convinced an immigration judge to lower his bail from $15,000 to $1,500, which he could afford. AIJP staff also expedited his visa petition. It was granted. Teodrovich has since applied for a green card and hopes to start an entertainment company in Anchorage after completing his studies at UAA.

"The reason I'm not back in Russia, or living here in USA as illegal immigrant, is because AIJP helped the immigration authorities see me as a person with a story of life circumstances, not just numbers in a computer," he said.

Founded in 2005, AIJP legally represents about 850 immigrants living in Alaska each year. "We are the only entity in Alaska that is dedicated to defending the human rights of immigrants and refugees," said AIJP executive director Robin Bronen. "About 250 of the individuals we assist every year are victims of a violent crime, including many cases of domestic violence and sexual assault."

Other AIJP clients include refugees fleeing political or religious persecution. Some are in the country illegally but face torture or murder if they are deported to their countries of origin.

AIJP also works closely with law enforcement agencies to combat international human trafficking. It refers trafficking victims to local police or the FBI, provides translators, and helps victims prepare and file petitions for U visas. These visas allow immigrant crime victims to remain in the United States legally for up to four years in order to cooperate with a law enforcement investigation. During that time they are eligible to work and can apply for a green card.

Next month in Washington, D.C., Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller will present AIJP with an FBI Director's Community Leadership Award.

"We nominated AIJP for the award specifically because of the important work they do in helping us identify and respond to victims of human trafficking," said Anchorage Division FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez. "We also work closely with them on the immigration petitions for victims of trafficking, which is highly valuable."

In addition to its legal work, AIJP also helps provide certified language interpreters and translators to more than 300 public and private sector organizations throughout the state. In 2007 it launched its Language Interpreter Center, which trains bilingual Alaskans and then connects them with government agencies, private businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve Alaska residents who don't speak fluent English. This includes Child Protective Services, insurance companies, the Alaska Department of Law and the state's Public Defender Agency.

Since it began LIC has trained about 300 interpreters in 40 languages. It's the only effort of its kind in Alaska.

AIJP also runs the Pro Bono Asylum Project, which trains Alaska attorneys to represent immigrants and refugees seeking political asylum in the United States. When a person seeking asylum contacts AIJP, its staff attorneys evaluate his claim of persecution. If the case passes muster, AIJP refers the client to a Pro Bono Asylum Project lawyer, who then represents them throughout the lengthy court process at no charge.

The strength of AIJP's vetting process is shown in the Asylum Project's success rate. Out of the more than 150 asylum seekers whom Asylum Project attorneys have represented in Alaska, only one has been denied asylum status. Asylum Project clients come to Alaska from all over the world, including El Salvador, Gambia and Burma.

One recent Asylum Project client was Nigerian playwright and journalist Ademola Bello.

Bello, 40, fled Nigeria in 2001 after he was severely beaten by a mob of Islamic fundamentalist thugs. Bello was targeted after he wrote and produced a play that criticized fundamentalist Sharia law, especially the practice of forcing young girls into arranged marriages, which was common in the northern Nigeria region where he taught high school.

For several years after leaving Nigeria, Bello was in the U.S. legally on a foreign student visa as he studied for a master's degree in performing arts at New York University.

While a graduate student at NYU, Bello wrote a series of articles criticizing ties between Islamic fundamentalist religious leaders and corrupt government officials in Nigeria. The articles were published in liberal Nigerian newspapers and on the website Huffington Post, further incurring the wrath of Islamic radicals in his home country.

In 2008, Bello moved to Alaska. He'd previously been to the state to present a play at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez. "I knew that to the extremists, Alaska would seem very cold and very far away, almost like another world," he said. "Alaska felt to me like a safe place."

Unfortunately for Bello, his student visa was long expired. He was in the country illegally. "I was in a tough spot. I knew if I returned to Nigeria I would face unimaginable hardships from the government and from the fundamentalists," he said. "My life would be at risk."

In May 2009, three weeks before Out North Theatre was set to open his play "The Black Cockerel" in Anchorage, Bello was arrested for violating federal immigration law and transported to a holding facility in Tacoma, Wash. He was there almost three weeks before he was able to arrange for relatives to bail him out. He made it back to Anchorage just in time for the opening night of his play.

At that opening, longtime Alaska lawyer and playwright John McKay told Bello about AIJP and gave him the agency's phone number. After vetting his case, AIJP attorneys referred Bello to Asylum Project attorney Conor Hallisy, then a 30-year-old attorney for ConocoPhillips in Anchorage. Hallisy volunteered for the case.

For the next two years, Hallisy put in long hours after work and on weekends. He and AIJP arranged for former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell to testify on Bello's behalf. In November 2011, Bello's petition for asylum was granted.

"I was very blessed to have Conor and AIJP on my side," he said. "The asylum process is very tricky and tough and I could not have done it alone. AIJP is a bold organization that fights for social justice for poor people like me and others still out there. Without them, there is a very real chance that I would have been deported and then killed."

Special to the Daily News