Villanova Law Students Help Russian Gay Man Win Asylum

Professor Michele Pistone (far left), Joseph Catuzzi ’14 (fourth from left) and Michelle Majkut ’14 (fourth from right) were part of a team that helped a Russian gay man win asylum in the U.S. Photo courtesy of

A Russian man who fled his homeland after suffering abuse for being gay has won asylum in the United States thanks to a team of law students at Villanova.

The Inquirer reports that the man, called S.R. in court documents, tried to enter America via Mexico when he was arrested as he was walking across the Rio Grande into Texas in July. From there he was sent to immigration detention at York County Prison and ordered to be sent back to Russia, but his fate changed when he met Joseph Catuzzi and Michelle Majkut, members of Villanova’s Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES), a program that supports immigrant detainees in court. The Inky tells the story:

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. …

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.

“So much of legal education is focused on learning the law,” said [Professor and CARES supervisor Michele] 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.

Talk about a heart-warming tale just in time for the holidays. You can read the rest of The Inquirer‘s story here. It delves into some of S.R.’s experiences in Russia, and offers a glimpse of what’s next for him in the States. CARES also offers its own take here.