Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the week: Elon's Heather Scavone helps political asylum-seekers settle in NC

CorrespondentMay 3, 2014 

Heather Scavone, head of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic at Elon University, has devoted her career to helping refugees and asylum seekers escape persecution.

AL DRAGO — The News & Observer

  • Heather Lynne Scavone

    Born: March 1981 in Pittsboro

    Residence: Greensboro

    Career: Director, Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, Elon University School of Law

    Education: B.A., French, Guilford College; J.D., N.C. Central University

    Family: Husband, Nico; sons, Gianluca and Giovanni

    Fun fact: Scavone receives many gifts from appreciative clients, including ethnic foods and works of art from different countries that hang in her office. One of the oddest gifts came when one client showed up with a dead chicken, feathers and all.

— Refugees escaping violence or persecution in dozens of war-torn or politically volatile countries sometimes find a new set of challenges in the United States.

Among them:

• Bringing children to a new home when their birth certificates went up in the flames of their former homes.

• Proving that they were tortured because of their political stances.

• Passing a citizenship test when they suffered brain damage while helping U.S. forces.

That’s where Heather Scavone and her team of Elon University law students come in. Scavone heads the university’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, which handles more than 400 cases a year for refugees and people seeking asylum in the United States.

It’s not a small group. With more than 2,000 placements per year, North Carolina ranks 10th among states for refugees brought to this country to escape persecution. The clinic helps them reunite with their families and become citizens, among other matters. It also helps people who arrived in the United States on their own seek asylum so that they can remain here.

Scavone, 33, started working with these types of immigrants as a volunteer with Lutheran Family Services and earned her law degree so that she could represent them. When Lutheran Family Services closed its Greensboro office, Scavone helped create a similar service within Elon’s law school.

She says the clinic, which started in 2010, is a perfect fit for the law students who learn from the experience and the clients who need its services. Helping people escape torture and see their families again after years apart, she says, offers lessons in perspective that go well beyond the law.

“You hear these narratives, and you realize how heroic some of these people are,” Scavone says. “Our advocacy is important, but it pales in comparison to the courage that these individuals have shown in the face of incredible dangers.”

Marlene Myer, the state’s refugee coordinator, says the clinic plays a crucial role in helping people who come to this country with few advocates, particularly the asylum-seekers who get only one chance to prove their cases or be sent back to the countries where their lives were at risk.

Myer says Scavone succeeds in these cases because she has both the legal expertise and a commitment to the people she serves.

“This is very involved and life-changing work,” says Myer. “She just cares so much about this community that their concerns are her concerns, too.”

From translator to lawyer

Scavone grew up in Pittsboro in a family oriented toward the Triangle; her father worked at Research Triangle Institute, her mother at Duke University.

She never planned to be a lawyer but came to her work through her interest in other countries. She was a French major at Guilford College, and now speaks French and Italian. She studied in France and spent a year studying and living in Scotland.

She first encountered the legal clinic at Lutheran Family Services when she was establishing residency for her husband, who is from Italy.

She was surprised to hear French spoken there by West African immigrants and started volunteering as a translator. She learned of the horrible ordeal these families had endured.

She went from volunteer to immigration case worker, and the work inspired her to earn her law degree, specializing in immigration law at N.C. Central University.

She earned that degree while still working full time at Lutheran Family Services and soon became director of the group’s legal services program. In 2010, the group decided to shut down that program in Greensboro.

The closing left a gap in services for the stream of refugees that had been coming through the Triad for decades. Scavone sought to establish a similar program at Elon’s law school, which was then only 4 years old.

One of the law school’s charter faculty members worked with her on a proposal, and the university moved quickly to embrace it.

A full-time clinic

The clinic has three staff members: Scavone and another law professor, who both oversee student cases, and a paralegal. It is unusual both in the variety of cases it takes and its heavy caseload – around 400 cases a year.

“The standard model is to pick a few cases per semester to work on for the benefit of students,” she says. “Ours is run more like a full-time, year-round large immigration practice.”

They only accept clients who have been persecuted in their home countries because of their race, religion, nationality, politics or social group. Some make it on their own, while others are sent to new homes through the United Nations.

The clinic represents clients from 47 countries and often sees waves of people from hotspots across the globe. Five years ago, many came from the former Yugoslavia. After that, they saw groups from Liberia.

Scavone easily discusses the politics and history of each country. Right now, the biggest group of clients comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died from a five-year civil war and the violent instability that has followed in the decade since.

The clinics help with typical immigration matters such as earning permanent residency and citizenship. But some of the most dramatic cases involve reuniting families.

Refugees may bring their children and other family members to this country legally, but it’s often difficult to prove their identities. The Somalian government, for instance, is not even issuing birth certificates.

“They give you goose bumps,” Scavone says of these cases. “There’s the elation from the reunification, but it’s also this poignant statement of how tragic the separation is.”

Earlier this month, one such story ended happily when a mother was reunited with her children after 10 years apart – five finding her way to the United States, and another five going through administrative delays.

Other stories don’t end as happily. In one case that dragged on for years, a child was killed while on his way to the U.S. Embassy to be sent to his parents.

Scavone’s current caseload includes several young women from a Muslim country who Scavone says were targeted because they continued studying past primary school; one was burned with acid.

Scavone has organized annual immigration law seminars since starting the clinic, and she has delighted in helping young law students learn the intricacies of immigration law – as well as the rewards of helping vulnerable people.

Second-year law student Devon Johnson called her work at the clinic “eye-opening.”

“It’s been extremely rewarding,” says Johnson, of Greenville, S.C. “Most of the clients here are coming from situations that seem like something from a Hollywood movie.”

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