It was in the clinic office where we had our first meeting. We had just sat down when her phone rang. She glanced at the screen and furrowed her brow. “I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s my client. I have to take this.” Before leaving the room to keep the conversation private, I took a quick inventory of what I was seeing. Here was Virginia Giannini: second year law student, native Italian, naturalized US citizen, student attorney in the Immigration Clinic, speaking Spanish, to her asylum-seeking client, at four o’clock, on a Friday.
Watching Virginia operate, it is no surprise that her lifelong ambition was to become not only a lawyer, but an immigration lawyer.
“I’ve always known I wanted to go to law school, because of the interaction I’ve always had with the law as an immigrant.”
Her experience as an immigrant, from leaving Italy to finally being naturalized while a sophomore at Syracuse, has given Virginia a singular perspective unmatched by her peers. She adds, “My sophomore year when I started my naturalization papers, I had an amazing attorney who walked me through my entire naturalization application.
She really took the time to explain everything to me, and I decided then and there that I wanted to be able to do that for someone else.”
Recently, Virginia, along with Immigration Clinic Staff Attorney Gabriela Kahrl, successfully represented a young man from El Salvador seeking asylum. Their victory was a profound moment for Virginia. She saw so much of herself in him (they were even the same age) but their immigration experiences couldn’t have been more different.
Virginia explains, “When people talk about coming the right way or waiting in line, they are ignoring the many arbitrary features of immigration law. What people don’t realize is that it’s like 90% luck that I had such an easy process, while someone else has to go through this harrowing process. This leaves us with the situation we have today where so many people are seeking safety and help but our immigration system is preventing many of them from seeking relief.”
For an asylum claim to be accepted, one must prove to be “unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.” In practice, that meant Virginia’s client, in custody for months, had to describe, dozens of times and in great detail, the profound trauma he faced that led him to flee El Salvador. Thankfully, they prevailed.