Three Delegates to Rome Naima Said

Naima SaidIf she doesn’t win every case, immigration lawyer Naima Said LL.M. ’90 prevails most of the time, which helps her to bear the horror stories she hears on a daily basis.

Said, whose two-woman office is in Columbia, Md., recently won asylum for a woman who had been beaten and raped by guards while in detention in Ethiopia for opposing the military government there, and for 12-year-old twin girls from Kenya who faced immediate genital mutilation if they were deported to their home country. In another, less violence-ridden case, an Egyptian researcher studying a cure for arthritis was denied an immigrant visa, because the INS was not convinced that his work would benefit this country. Several weeks later, the story of his potential arthritis cure was headline news on Good Morning America and Nightline. Said resubmitted the man’s petition, which was immediately approved.

A case Said especially enjoys reporting on concerns a Sudanese man who had criticized his government through his music. The judge, who ultimately granted the application for asylum, asked Said’s client to play his guitar and sing. "I like to say I won this case on a song," she quips.

Said opened her practice in 1991, expecting to focus on international trade, the subject of her LL.M. thesis. "But my very first call was about an immigration-related matter, and so
was my 100th. I began reading every paper about immigration I could get my hands on, and attending every conference. I’m very happy things
took this turn."

Many of Said’s clients are Muslim women who have sought her out because she is a Muslim woman too. A graduate of the University of Nairobi’s law school, Said is from Kenya, where she practiced general civil litigation in the early 1980s. In 1982 she immigrated to the United States and worked briefly in the public and private sectors before starting her own practice.

Cases of Muslim women clients often involve some version of the following scenario, Said says: a naturalized U.S. citizen with a girlfriend in this country is pressured by his family to return to his home country and find a wife. He complies, resentfully, and, in some instances, abuses the unwanted wife. He likely moves out to live with the girlfriend and seeks a divorce, leaving his wife subject to deportation.

The wife in this scenario is called an "alien spouse," Said explains. To retain the "conditional immigration status" she was granted upon marrying, she must live with her "citizen spouse" for two years. Then the couple can jointly file a petition to have her conditional status lifted, after which she may become a permanent resident. Problems arise if she is not living with her spouse, or if he refuses to cosign the petition. "In this situation, her only stay against deportation is to apply to waive the spousal cosigning and the two-year live-in requirements," says Said. "A waiver of these conditions may be granted if she can prove battery, hardship if she is deported, or that the marriage has terminated and she entered into it in good faith."

"It is enormously gratifying to win permanent residence for these women," she says. In one such case, a Haitian woman received regular beatings from an older, jealous husband who refused to apply for immigration benefits on her behalf, because he thought she would divorce him if she became a permanent resident. Said was able to get the woman’s application for immigrant status approved.

Many of Said’s clients have been subject to misapplications of Islamic law in this country, she says, by "imams," or individuals appointed to lead prayers, whom Islamic communities have elevated to the status of "judge," because of a shortage of qualified candidates. "Muslim women come to me seeking a civil divorce after they have applied for a divorce under Islamic religious law. I often discover that the Islamic ‘judge’ has made a whimsical ruling." In one case, the judge granted the religious divorce because the husband bought a car with a stick shift, and the wife had wanted an automatic. Another judge refused to grant a divorce, citing the importance of maintaining family unity. "These judges are often unqualified individuals who import the culture and values of their home country and do not address the legal issues presented to them," Said says. "Their appointment needs to be much better regulated."

Said was delighted by the reception to her talk on these and other matters at the Worldwide Alumni Congress in June. "I’m also happy that because of the trip to Rome, I am now in e-mail contact with about 30 classmates. We are trying to get as many people as possible to attend our tenth reunion in the year 2000."

Nancy Waring

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