Pro Bono Excellence Award Recipient Marcela Velarde ’21 Champions Human Rights

June 7, 2021

Each year, American University Washington College of Law recognizes the graduating law student that has completed the most hours of bono and community service work during their time at AUWCL with the Pro Bono Excellence Award.

Marcela Velarde ’21
Marcela Velarde '21

Dedicated to the advancement of rights around the globe, this year’s recipient Marcela Velarde ’21 devoted her hundreds of hours of pro bono legal work at various human rights organizations focused on the protection of asylum-seekers, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking.

Providing pro bono services at the Refugee Law Project in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, Velarde gave legal advice for detained refugees accused of crimes within the settlement, and represented asylum seekers in appeals processes before the Office of the Prime Minister. At the Caribbean Protection Unit at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she completed Refugee Status Determination assessments for persons of concern through legal analysis, and extensive research to appropriately identify individuals eligible for refugee status, while also informing the adjudication process for asylum cases.

“I also drafted Universal Periodic Review submissions on behalf of UNHCR to monitor the human rights records of United Nations Member States within the Caribbean region and strengthen protective legislation for persons of concern,” Velarde said.

At the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Velarde conducted research and drafted a policy report on asylum procedures, appeals processes, refugee rights, and practical barriers to asylum in Mexico and Guatemala in order to demonstrate why they are not viable countries for immigrants to seek international protection – a report “necessary to push against harmful U.S. policies that have inhumanely deterred immigration through large-scale breaches of due process,” she said.

And at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, Velarde conducted research, gathered supporting documentation, and drafted a legal brief responding to a Request for Evidence on a T-Visa application for survivor of human trafficking and domestic violence.

A Standout Experience

During Velarde’s time living and working at Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, she traveled to different departments within the settlement, giving presentations to refugee arrivals on their rights and how legal representation could help them. At a time of uncertainty for refugees instinctively searched for security and the means to start a livelihood in another country, Velarde said this memorable experience allowed her to better understand firsthand the legal challenges faced by all refugees and the importance of embracing the right to counsel.

“This was one of the most standout pro bono experiences I had, not only because of the opportunity to provide direct representation to one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, but because it allowed me to build relationships with my clients on a personal level, beyond legal representation. This experience has profoundly guided my work because in serving the refugee population, I not only had the opportunity to apply international legal standards for refugee protection in my work, but also put into practice my beliefs about how people should be treated with equality outside work,” Velarde said. “With my focus on immigration and refugee law, I want to use my legal skills and competencies to make the privileges I have, coming from a country that offers the international legal protection for my human rights to be respected, attainable by those who are forced to flee their home countries.”

AUWCL and Beyond

Marcela Velarde ’21, left, and Lisa Ndembu Lumeya '21 celebrating graduation in Paris, France.
Marcela Velarde ’21, left, and Lisa Ndembu Lumeya '21 celebrating graduation in Paris, France.

Velarde chose AUWCL because of its legal education in international law, the Clinical Program, and the international dual-degree program with Université Paris Nanterre in Paris, France. Velarde graduated from the Program in May with a JD and French JD equivalent (a Master I and Master II in International and European Public Law).

“AUWCL offers a wide range of opportunities and programs to discover and put international law into practice, as well as be well-connected in the Washington, D.C. community,” Velarde said. “Most importantly, I was able to concretely find what area of international human rights law I wanted to practice in. In the large field of international law, the experiences I had at AUWCL gave me the opportunity to focus on the area of law and population I want to serve.”

Velarde will be taking the New York bar exam and the French bar exam, and plans to remain in Paris to work and put her international dual-degree to practice.

“I am hoping to work at an international organization or law firm, always with the focus on immigration and refugee law, human trafficking, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.”