The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Immigration Clinic is where Virginia feels most at home. “I'm always in the clinic office. It's my happy place. It's like running around with a chicken with my head cut off, but I love it.”
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.
(Giannini (left) with Kahrl outside of the courthouse after the verdict)
Co-Counsel Gabriela Kahrl describes Virginia’s actions after winning asylum for their client, “When he was ultimately released from the court and put on the street on a very, very cold day with just a flimsy sweater and some sweatpants, we walked over to meet him. Virginia literally took the coat off her back, and insisted that he wear it so that his first free steps in months wouldn’t be uncomfortable. I found that very moving. That was without any coaching; it was her spontaneous gesture, and I was so proud to be working with someone who took such a holistic approach to the case. He was never just a client, or a project, or a grade, he was a human being that she cared about deeply.”
As disparate as the individual immigration experiences were for Virginia and her client, the difference in the way her client was treated before the hearing and afterwards was just as dramatic. She describes, “Our client went from being in detention to having an hour-long hearing where he's granted asylum. Now, all of a sudden, he's welcome. Now we want to protect you. Here are your rights, here's your access to health care, here's your access to a social security number, here's your work permit. Now we want you.”
Back at Maryland Carey Law, the group waited for their newly freed client’s ride home. In the clinic office sat Virginia and her client, a palpable reminder of how the paths of two people, so similar and so different, might cross. In a final act of compassion and empathy, Virginia settled her client into a room with her laptop playing Netflix and a pizza. Exactly what she might have wanted if their roles were reversed.