‘I Have to Keep Going’
Losing asylum cases has taught Anna Tijerina so much
Published in 2023 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 12, 2022
Anna Tijerina lost her first asylum case. Badly.
“The judge just tore me apart,” the immigration lawyer says of the extortion case, which involved a woman in her 30s and during which the judge objected to every line of her questioning. At the close, she left the courtroom and sobbed—for her client, for herself, and for the injustice she felt she’d just witnessed. She didn’t return to her office that day.
But she did return the next, and felt stronger for it.
“It was good motivation. Never again did I want to be in that position, never again did I want to feel this way,” says Tijerina, now a senior associate at the Law Office of Raymond O. Griffith in Baltimore. “Even now, when I am preparing a case or preparing for a trial—and I’m tired and I want to go to sleep—I remember that feeling and tell myself that I have to keep going.”
Tijerina’s need to keep going is also fueled by her personal history. Born in the U.S., she grew up in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the border from Laredo, Texas.
“I grew up hearing grenades and gun fights on the streets,” she says, noting that she saw corrupt politicians and police offers allowing drug cartels to extort citizens. She knows her clients’ stories of persecution—by the cartels, family and community members, law enforcement, and elected officials—are true, even when some U.S. attorneys and opposing counsels are skeptical.
One client, whose petition for asylum was recently granted after an appeal, was kidnapped by cartel members when he was 14. He survived being beaten and raped, eventually escaping to the U.S. In court, when Tijerina detailed why the young man did not want to return to Mexico, the government’s attorneys scoffed at the reasoning.
“The government said, ‘This kid isn’t credible. Five years later, and they would still be looking for him? Doesn’t the cartel have more important things to do? Why is he so important?’” Tijerina says. “They did not understand that he had escaped the cartel, and they don’t like that because it undermines their power.”
Despite her rocky start with asylum cases, they’re now the ones Tijerina enjoys most—especially when she’s standing up for domestic violence victims. The cases can drag on for years, but there’s no greater feeling than when they conclude successfully.
“They’re here, creating a life, wondering, ‘Do I have children or not? Do I buy a house or not?’ There are so many uncertainties. They look like they’re going through life with a block of cement on their shoulders,” says Tijerina. “But when they hear the judge say they can stay in the U.S., it’s like that burden is lifted and they can finally breathe. As a lawyer, seeing that first breath is priceless.”
This was true for a recent case involving a Honduran woman in her 30s whose partner had long abused her—physically, sexually, and mentally. When the woman reported the violence to local police, they told her that she had to serve her abuser the summons, calling him to court.
“She said, ‘He beat me because he was drunk.’ I said, ‘No, he was beating you because he’s a bad person and has no respect for women,’” Tijerina says. “I take violence against women very personally. If I were in that situation, I have the means to walk away, financially and emotionally, and with the help of authorities. Some women in other countries do not.”
Tijerina successfully argued that her client’s life would be endangered if she returned home, and the court agreed. The client appeared via video link, but Tijerina could see the relief rush through her. “It’s a feeling that absolutely never gets old,” she says.
There will likely always be, however, cases that leave her in tears. After a detained Mexican-born father of three United States-born children was denied immigration relief, she had to tell him he could not go home to say goodbye to his family or collect any belongings. Instead, the government was immediately taking him to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande so he could cross a bridge into Mexico.
“I broke the news to him in person, at the detention facility, and I’m crying … and the client hears me, and he thanks me for all of my hard work,” Tijerina says. “Here I am, telling him, ‘Your life is about to change. Your children will stay here without a father,’ and all he could do was thank me. Sometimes, you try everything, and you lose, and the client still appreciates all the hard work you did for them.”