Villanova law students help gay Russian win asylum

Villanova law professor Michele Pistone and third-year law student Joseph Catuzzi speak to the Russian man identified as S.R. With their efforts, the man was granted asylum.
Villanova law professor Michele Pistone and third-year law student Joseph Catuzzi speak to the Russian man identified as S.R. With their efforts, the man was granted asylum. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 20, 2013

As a gay man in Russia, S.R. said, he was a frequent target.

A few months after vigilantes beat him for holding hands with a man in 2011, he said, he and two male friends were at a beach when they were set upon by six drunken thugs.

"Someone kicked me from behind, and as I fell forward, another man kicked me in the face. [They] yelled pidirugi" - Russian for "faggots", said S.R., now in his early 30s.

His testimony, along with arguments from Villanova University law school students, helped the man win political asylum last month from a U.S. immigration judge in York, Pa.

In doing so, S.R., as his lawyers have identified him, joined an emerging class of persecuted immigrants: Russian homosexuals.

As many as 50 Russians facing deportation here have similar requests for asylum pending, S.R.'s advocates say. And that number could swell given their homeland's increasing antagonism toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

In June, the country passed a law barring gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships. LGBT activists say the Russian law against "gay propaganda" has sparked waves of homophobic vigilantism that often are ignored by police.

The U.S. State Department noted the changing climate in a travel advisory this fall.

"Violence against the LGBT community has increased sharply since the law was passed, including entrapment and torture of young gay men by neo-Nazi gangs," it said.

S.R.'s story emerged in immigration court records provided to The Inquirer by law Professor Michele Pistone, who supervises Villanova's Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES), a 15-year-old program that represents immigrant detainees in court.

Fleeing to America last spring, the man went to Cuba, then Mexico, and used the compass on his smartphone to walk north across the Rio Grande into Texas on July 14.

Arrested near the border, he was sent to immigration detention at York County Prison to face removal.

That's where his case was entrusted to third-year Villanova law students Joseph Catuzzi and Michelle Majkut, members of the clinic. Igor Ponomarev, a second-year Villanova law student who was born in Russia, provided translation.

"Forced to deny his sexuality, beaten every time he expressed it . . . our client lived in a nation that is not just homophobic, but has public officials who tolerate violence against homosexuals," Catuzzi, 24, of Kinnelon, N.J., said this week.

In his affidavit, S.R., a high school dropout who worked in various jobs, said he was 17 the first time he had intimate relations with a man, in 1999. For the next decade and a half, he said, he mostly hid his sexual orientation and was harassed by coworkers demanding to know why he wasn't married.

After his arm was gashed by broken glass in the beach attack, he anticipated police disinterest and embarrassment if he went to a hospital, so he went home and bandaged himself.

"I knew I had to leave Russia if I had any hope of living a normal and safe life," his affidavit states.

Pistone said Catuzzi and Majkut did exhaustive research to explain the absence of hospital records and police reports. They enlisted Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania psychiatric fellow Alisa Gutman to assess S.R.'s trauma and provide a report.

Because CARES was co-taught for the first time this semester by Villanova theater Professor Harriet Power, the student lawyers learned the importance of concise storytelling.

"So much of legal education is focused on learning the law," said Pistone. "We tend to overlook that the facts of a case are important. How are we going to prove a man is gay when he's in a jail and we can't bring in his partners" to testify?

The students decided to prove it inferentially. "Not married, no children," at his age, in his country, put him in a very small minority of the population, said Catuzzi.

During the hearing to deport him last month, the government attorney for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement challenged S.R.'s credibility, focusing on alleged discrepancies in his testimony and prior statements.

But the students got a hint that their case was going well when the judge - whose name is also redacted in the paperwork - said Gutman's report was sufficient and she did not need to testify.

Moments later, he ruled from the bench: Asylum granted.

The government waived its right to appeal.

S.R. was free.

"We were successful because we prepared very thoroughly," said Catuzzi. "But after we won, we were not prepared to have him released to us that day."

The prison was set to put S.R. on a bus to Harrisburg, but the students stepped up.

With temperatures in the 30s, said Catuzzi, "we picked him up and he was standing there with nothing but prison flip-flops, shorts, and the shirt" he wore when he entered the United States.

On the drive back to Villanova, Majkut and Catuzzi stopped at a Lancaster County store and bought him a winter coat, boots, and underwear.

Villanova's Campus Ministry provided five days of room and board at the Villanova Conference Center so he could begin working on a resettlement plan. Villanova students donated clothes in his size. One donated a laptop.

HIAS, the Philadelphia immigrant aid group, began teaching him English and has helped get his feet on the ground to start a new life in the United States.


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

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