The Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU Law has secured an important victory in the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals for its client Lincoln Junior Smith. After a six-year legal struggle, Smith, a Jamaican-born United States lawful permanent resident who had been charged with removal for past offenses, is now eligible for discretionary relief from deportation.

Smith spent nearly five years in immigration detention.  While the government transferred him in and out of detention centers across the country, he fought a legal battle to protect himself from deportation. But in April 2021, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) deemed Smith ineligible to apply for relief from deportation on the grounds that his past conviction for drug possession near a park constituted an aggravated felony.

“In immigration law, there’s this term called ‘aggravated felony’ where something doesn’t have to be aggravated, and it doesn’t have to be a felony,” says Professor of Clinical Law Nancy Morawtez ’81, who co-directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic. “It’s a very misleading term. But if you have one of those [aggravated felonies], you can’t seek equitable relief. You can’t seek asylum. There are lots of things that you’re not allowed to do. That’s why there are so many battles around this categorization and what it means. And we do a lot of that work in our clinic.”

In Fall 2021, after being contacted by the Immigrant Defense Project and Make the Road New York, the Immigrant Rights Clinic took on Smith’s case and began working on an appeal.

From left: Aidan Langston, Keiana James, Nancy Morawetz, and Lily Gutterman on the courthouse steps

From left: Aidan Langston, Keiana James, Nancy Morawetz, and Lily Gutterman

Clinic students Lily Gutterman ’23, Keiana James ’23, and Aidan Langston ’23 spent hours with Smith, hearing his story, researching New Jersey criminal law, and preparing to go to court. Gutterman and James drafted the client’s appeal brief, a written argument outlining why the BIA misinterpreted state law in its decision. 

"Mr. Smith ended every meeting we had with him by reminding us of his steadfast belief that we would win his case, together,” says James. 

On October 20, 2022, Gutterman and Langston argued Smith’s case to a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, facing Chief Judge Debra Ann Livingston and Judges William Nardini and Steven Menashi. “The oral argument was the culmination of countless hours researching, collaborating with experts, and testing out new ways to make complex ideas simple,” says Gutterman. 

A year later, on October 31, 2023, the court released its decision, finding that Smith’s offense should not be categorized as an aggravated felony and granting a petition for review of the BIA’s ruling. Now Smith will have the opportunity to have his case heard by an immigration judge. The Immigrant Rights Clinic will continue to represent him.

In May 2023, the Clinical Legal Education Association honored the three NYU Law students with the Outstanding Clinic Team Award.

Gutterman, Langston, and James all note that Smith’s self-advocacy was an important part of the case, adding that his strength and resiliency helped buoy the team throughout the long fight. “Preparing for oral argument as a law student was a big challenge, but that was nothing compared to what Mr. Smith has endured during his ongoing fight against deportation,” says Langston. “His resilience and his tireless advocacy for himself continue to inspire me, and I am so grateful that I had the chance to be a part of his team and of this victory.”