GW Law’s Immigration Clinic Helps Clients from around the Globe

Dedicated George Washington University students and faculty work to assist immigrants in dire situations.

March 21, 2024

From left, Paulina Vera, Alexander Love and Alberto Benítez at Love's naturalization ceremony

Paulina Vera and Alberto Benítez joined Alexander Love, a former client of the Immigration Clinic at GW Law, for his naturalization ceremony—“the happy part of immigration cases,” in Vera’s words. (Contributed photo)

Comedies often end with a wedding, and there’s a marriage in this story, but it’s not a comedy. This is an immigration story, and it ends in a naturalization ceremony, with some painful, dramatic scenes along the way. It begins in the Soviet Union with a gay boy called Sasha, and ends in the United States with a gay man named Alexander. They’re the same person, with a lot of credit for that transformation due to students and faculty of the Immigration Clinic at GW Law.

Alexander Love, as he is now known, was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His family moved to suburban Moscow, where he grew up and was expected to become highly educated. As a young teen, he realized he is gay, but he came out only to a few trusted friends and, aged 18, began serving in the Soviet Army. After being discharged in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was breaking apart, he went back to school.

“I was artistic and the majority of my subjects were things like physics, chemistry and mathematics,” Love said. “The only classes I passed were English classes.” Following his passion for working with textiles, he quit school and began sewing clothes for himself and for friends who ordered garments from him. He also taught English.

In these years just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union dissolved and Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Russian president, instituted major reforms. Gay bars and clubs opened (and have since closed) and Western values were embraced. Love befriended Americans living in Moscow and realized how different his life was from theirs. Though Russian society was more relaxed in this period, it could still be very difficult and even dangerous for LGTBQ individuals. In 1998, Love visited the United States for the first time, returning in 1999 and again in 2000, when he first came to Washington, D.C.

“I had been to Spain a few times, so I knew how different it was for gay people outside of Russia,” he said. Gay life at home, even in the more open climate at that time, was risky. “Verbal and physical harassment was always there. You could be stopped on the street or followed by a police car, mostly for the bribes. Sometimes they put some kind of powder in your car.” In taxis, on public transportation, even in gay clubs, he said, people were harassed just because they looked different.

Today, Love prefers not to dwell on the worst abuses he suffered. In 2001, he came to GW Law’s Immigration Clinic for help with his asylum application. Applicants fleeing persecution of LGBTQ people in their home countries need to prove past persecution or that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. Though ill treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Russia is well documented, Love’s application was denied.

Faculty and students in the Immigration Clinic didn’t give up. They assisted him in getting a work permit that allowed him to stay in the United States while they worked on his case. Because he was a clothing designer who had worked with singer Mariah Carey and other persons of note, he was approved for a work permit based on his special skills. But fate quickly intervened.

“Unfortunately,” Love said, “I was diagnosed with HIV, and at that time, you could not apply for a work visa if you had HIV.” (A year later, the law was changed.)

Years passed, and GW Law students came and went with the natural rhythm of matriculation and graduation, but professor Alberto M. Benítez, director of the Immigration Clinic, was a steady presence. So was the man Love said brought stability to his life, his boyfriend (now husband) Michael Love. When same-sex marriage was legalized in 2013, they had been together for eight years. Benítez told Alexander (whose last name then was Sozonov) that if he and Love were married, the clinic could work on obtaining a marriage-based adjustment to his request for permission to remain in America. The partners eagerly wed, but to get their marriage recognized as legitimate in the eyes of the immigration system, both men had to make many court appearances.

A high-stakes version of ‘The Newlywed Game’

Marriage to an American citizen did not automatically mean Love could be granted status as a permanent resident and issued a green card. Sydney Josephson, J.D. ’14, was one of the students who worked on his case. One of her significant contributions to Love’s case was filing a motion to get an approved marriage-based immigrant petition establishing that his union was made in good faith. 

The process of gaining such recognition can be tricky, according to Josephson, who now practices immigration law with the Fragomen firm in Atlanta. “Sometimes they’ll put people in separate rooms,” she said, “and ask questions like, ‘What color is your fridge?’ One person will say white and the other person will say black. And immigration officials say, ‘This isn't a good faith marriage. You don't live together.’”

But Love’s application went smoothly. He and his husband did not go through interviews in separate rooms. They had been together for so long by then that there was little doubt about the nature of their marriage.

Some applicants see less happy results, Josephson said. “A colleague told me about a woman who was asked, ‘What does your husband wear to sleep in?’ She said, ‘Pajamas,’ and the man said, ‘I sleep in gym shorts and a T-shirt.’ And that was one of the reasons they were denied because the officer didn’t think they actually lived together. But I think someone who grew up in another country may think of sweatpants and T-shirt as pajamas.”

Sydney Josephson, J.D. '14, is flanked by Alexander Love and Michael Love in April 2014 on the day of their interview in support of their marriage-based immigrant petition, which was approved soon after.
Sydney Josephson, J.D. '14, is flanked by Alexander Love and Michael Love in April 2014 on the day of their interview in support of their marriage-based immigrant petition, which was approved soon after. (Contributed photo)

Working in immigration law can be extremely rewarding, according to Josephson, because it feels good to help people like Love.

“He’s an amazing person,” she said. “He has a beautiful relationship with Michael, and they’re wonderful people.”

Love was granted status as a permanent resident of the United States in 2016. He enjoys working as a textile librarian for the Washington Design Center.

“It’s a library, but instead of books you have tons of fabrics, trims, leathers and wallpapers,” Love said. “You have to know where everything is at and how to handle them. I’m very happy in this position.”

Clients from around the world

Alumna Paulina Vera, B.A. ’12, J.D. ’15, is a professorial lecturer in law and a supervising attorney of the Immigration Clinic. Since returning to GW seven years ago, she has supervised the students working on Love’s case and others.

“I actually was a student in the Immigration Clinic in my third year at GW Law,” Vera said. “I went to law school because I wanted to be an immigration attorney. I'm the daughter of two immigrants. My mom is from England; my dad, rest in peace, was from Peru. I grew up in Tucson, an hour away from the U.S.-Mexico border. So, immigration has always been a pretty big part of my personal life.”

The Immigration Clinic at GW Law started in 1979 and has helped countless people seek asylum or resist deportation. Clinic members have assisted victims of trafficking as well as DREAMers and youth covered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. They have worked with clients from El Salvador, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Indonesia, China and elsewhere. Recently, they helped a returning client—a woman they successfully represented in her application for asylum in 2018—bring her four children to the United States from Honduras.

Benítez and Vera currently have a cert petition before the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to review the decision of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Moisés Cruz Cruz, an undocumented Mexican man living in Virginia. During a routine traffic stop, a police officer asked Cruz his name. In a nervous moment, Cruz combined his own name with his brother’s name. Though he immediately corrected his mistake and wrote his correct name and date of birth on a piece of paper, the officer charged him with false identification, a misdemeanor. On the advice of a lawyer, Cruz entered a guilty plea, and as a result he is now facing deportation. Three of his children are U.S. citizens.

“To me,” Vera said, “this case is very indicative of the overarching immigration consequences that fairly minor criminal convictions can have. Are we going to separate a man from his family of five who has a partner who’s not from Mexico, so could not go back to Mexico with him, over something that stemmed from a traffic stop?”

Benítez said the Immigration Clinic staff unsuccessfully tried, through a different lawyer, to get Cruz’s guilty plea withdrawn. The case hinges on the question of whether Cruz committed a “crime involving moral turpitude,” which justifies deportation in immigration cases. Such crimes are typically defined as depraved acts involving child pornography, rape and other violent crimes such as murder.

“He did plead guilty, and he is in violation of the Virginia state code,” Benítez said. “We’re not disputing that. But is it an immigration violation? We hope that the Supreme Court agrees with us that it is not. State criminal law and federal immigration law are two different things. If the Supreme Court agrees with us, Moisés would be eligible to apply for—not necessarily get—a remedy that we call an immigration law cancellation of removal. That is for long-term residents of the United States who have no status, who establish ties to the United States and establish that they are good citizens.”

‘These folks are not criminals’

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, as the child of Mexican parents, Benítez never discussed immigration with them. His interest in immigration law was piqued when he was in college and learned that applications for asylum were processed with political rather than humanitarian concerns uppermost at play. He went to law school during the Reagan years and has taught at GW since 1996. After practicing immigration law for decades, Benítez said he knows at least one thing for sure.

“There is no border crisis,” he said. “These folks are not criminals. They do not bring disease. They are people trying to save themselves and save their kids. And the way that certain elements in our society demonize them is just plain wrong.”

There is never a shortage of clients at the Immigration Clinic, he said. On the contrary, they sometimes have to make wrenching decisions about which cases to take and which to decline. On average, he estimates that the clinic helps about 50 people per year, including the family members of clients. The clinic’s efforts on behalf of clients, Love among them, can stretch over several years.

“As long as the clients are prepared to continue fighting,” Benítez said, “we are prepared to continue fighting. The student attorneys that I’ve supervised, including Paulina, are the best. Whatever they lack in experience, they make up for in zeal, intelligence, professionalism and empathy.”

Love’s gratitude for the students who helped him remains undimmed.

“The students were the stars of my case,” he said. “I should frame their pictures. I’m thankful to all of them.”

The closing scene in Love’s immigration story takes place at his naturalization ceremony in 2020. Benítez and Vera were present to congratulate him on becoming a U.S. citizen.