Like many lawyers, Sean Olender had long read about the work of Karen Musalo, Professor of Law and Director, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings College of Law at the University of California at San Francisco. Professor Musalo argued an important asylum case called Matter of Kasinga before the Board of Immigration Appeals in 1996, two years before Sean began practicing law. In Kasinga, the court held that fear of female genital mutilation can be a basis for a successful asylum claim under section 208 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The court also found that the applicant's social group (an essential part of this type of asylum claim) consisted of young women of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu Tribe who have not had FGM, as practiced by that tribe, and who oppose the practice.
In 2002 the San Francisco Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Services Program referred Sean a case involving a woman named Heba who was from Sudan. She was 19 years old and had not yet been subjected to FGM, did not want to be subjected to it and feared that her family - especially her father and brother - would soon physically force the procedure on her. It was important to her family that she marry and it was difficult, perhaps impossible, for her to marry in Sudan without demonstrating that she had undergone FGM. Her tribe, village and family all supported the practice and in their small community her refusal to ensure it would shame the family and put their wellbeing at risk. At 19, Heba was quickly passing the normal age of marriage.
Sean agreed to represent Heba pro bono and together they began the work of documenting the extent of FGM in Sudan through newspaper articles, sociological research, UN and human rights reports. Sean interviewed witnesses, many by phone. He prepared declarations, organized the evidence and worked with Heba to ensure that no available evidence was left uninspected.
The law requires applicants for relief from removal to present all available evidence at the time of the individual hearing. If the applicant could have acquired certain evidence with reasonable dilligence and failed to, the court will refuse to reopen the case and consider the evidence later. The individual hearing is the place to submit all relevant evidence. Although Heba's asylum interview was not yet at the immigration court, it was crucial that we reviewed all available, relevant evidence and submitted the evidence that would help her case.
Heba testified consistently and convincingly and there was considerable evidence that FGM was widespread in Sudan. The San Francisco Asylum Office granted the case and Heba became an asylee and then later a US permanent resident.