Law Alumnus Edward Neufville '03 Takes On the Patriot Act

Lexington, VA Monday, July 17, 2006

Although Edward Neufville '03L practices general civil litigation, landlord/tenant litigation and family law, his specialty is asylum/immigration law. It's an area he understands all too well, for Neufville grew up during wartime in Gbarnga, Liberia, before escaping to the U.S. When the country's first civil war erupted in 1989, he, his parents and three sisters moved to the capital, Monrovia. Within months, the rebel forces attacked the city. "I was at the front line, in the midst of everything," Neufville remembers. "I saw the atrocities, the child soldiers and the mercenaries."

Given that trial by fire, it's no surprise that he takes on difficult cases other attorneys turn down. His most recent case, which involves an asylum-seeker and challenges a provision in the Patriot Act, has even drawn coverage by NPR and the New York Times.

When he was 14, Neufville's parents sent him and two of his sisters to the United States. His sisters attended school in Lawrenceville, Va., and he lived in Sumter, S.C., with his god-parents. "The biggest transition was that people were completely unaware of what was happening in Liberia," he says. "It was a shock to feel so isolated."

He easily adjusted to the academics, however, and joined the high school track team. His speed in the 110- and 400-meter hurdles brought several scholarship offers from Division I universities; he chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in international relations. "I thought it offered a better academic experience," Neufville explains. He competed with the UNC track team and represented Liberia in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Although Neufville thought about competing in the 2000 Summer Olympics, he chose law school instead. "I have no regrets, even though I was stronger and faster. Choosing law school was one of the best decisions I have ever made."

One of his most important experiences at W&L included working on the Board of Immigration Appeals Pro Bono Project, when he wrote an appellate brief in support of a Mexican immigrant. The hands-on experience helped him appreciate what he was learning in law school: the importance of reading the statute, understanding legislative history and constructing a well-written argument.

Neufville opened his Baltimore practice in 2004 and quickly established a reputation as an effective advocate for his clients. He returns to the basics he learned at W&L again and again. "As a solo practitioner, I don't have a supervisor or senior partner to turn to," he says. "So I start at square one and ask myself, 'What does the statute say? What is its intent?' However, I do rely on mentors from my previous internships, such as immigration attorneys Tom Hutchins and Debi Sanders, for creative ways to approach certain areas of the law." He loves practicing on his own. "I can accept cases that might not be available to me in bigger firms," he explains. "I've already appeared before state and federal judges."

In 2005, Neufville accepted an asylum case involving a woman, a Burmese Christian and ethnic Chin, whom the U.S. government has detained in Texas since she arrived from Myanmar (Burma) in 2004. At issue is a provision in the Patriot Act that denies entry to anyone who has provided material support to a terrorist or armed rebel group, even if the person supplied that support under duress. "Up until now, Homeland Security was going after the biggest threats and hadn't applied the Patriot Act to asylum cases," says Neufville. "I knew this case would be a big, big deal because the Patriot Act doesn't have a lot of legislative history."

The Myanmar government had persecuted his client (who chooses to remain anonymous) for her religious beliefs and ethnicity, and she had donated money to armed rebels who opposed the repressive government. Her actions, according to the Patriot Act, put her in technical violation of the law. "There is wide discretion in deciding the meaning of one word," says Neufville. "How do you define material support? The amount of money she gave is mere pennies. It was not substantial or significant in any way. Is she a threat to the U.S.? I don't think so." The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are working on a waiver for such cases, but as of press time, he and his client are waiting for the judges' decision.

It will probably be the first of many such cases. "I think the laws are tightening," said Neufville. "In light of 9/11 and how the Patriot Act is now being applied, it will be harder for those seeking asylum. No one wants to be held responsible for signing off on a 'future terrorist'."

After enduring war, starting a new life in the U.S. and competing in the Olympics, such challenges don't faze Neufville.

-- Louise Uffelman

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