Attorneys Volunteer to Protect Asylum Seekers

By Gabe Cahn,

Say you are a visitor to the United States and you cannot return home. To leave the country would mean risking torture, or imprisonment, or put your life in danger. You might ask the U.S. to spare you, to grant you protection here instead. In legal terms, you might seek asylum. 

The right to seek asylum is enshrined in international and U.S. law, yet for those seeking asylum access to legal representation remains frustratingly limited.

“Representation by counsel greatly increases the chances that an asylum applicant will be successful,” explained Liz Sweet, HIAS’ managing attorney who oversees the organization’s pro bono attorney program.

Recognizing the growing demand for assistance navigating the tedious legal process tied to securing asylum status in the U.S., HIAS recently launched a pro bono training program for attorneys to volunteer their services.

“Cultivating a network of trained attorneys has allowed us to respond to the significant need, as applications for asylum are rising as many of the world’s refugee populations reach the United States,” Sweet said.  

The trainings are designed to familiarize attorneys unfamiliar with immigration issues sufficient knowledge of asylum law, so they walk out prepared to accept their first case.

To date, HIAS has conducted two trainings in the Washington, D.C. area and one in New York City, reaching nearly 100 volunteer attorneys. At the most recent  Washington, D.C. training, half of the attending attorneys accepted asylum cases on the spot.

HIAS-trained volunteers have the opportunity to take on a wide-variety of cases, from a Jamaican man harassed by his peers, rejected by his family and banished from his family’s home due to his sexual orientation; to a young woman from Chad escaping a forced marriage arrangement with a physical abusive cousin; or a university professor persecuted for being a human rights defender in Senegal.

Though the specifics of the cases can differ, the enthusiasm among the volunteers centers around a desire to put their skill set to good use.

At the New York training, an overflow crowd of nearly 50 attorneys piled into the basement of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to learn what they could do to help those in need of legal protection.

Lisa Mednick Owen, a New York-based attorney and HIAS volunteer called the training “an opportunity to really make a difference," adding that, “the data about the lack of representation for most asylum seekers, and the significantly increased success rate of those with representation, was really motivating.”

Participants also received praise from Rabbi Shuli Passow, Director of Community Engagement at B’nai Jeshurun, for “seeing themselves” in the response to the global refugee crisis, and drawing on their own skills to “make a difference in a very concrete and profound way.”

B’nai Jeshurun is a member of the HIAS Welcome Campaign, a network of more than 220 congregations who have pledged their support for refugees over the past year. Through their participation in the campaign, they set up a refugee committee, co-chaired by congregant Sandy Cheiten, who reminded the volunteers, “we're here tonight, not because they are Jewish. We're here tonight because we are Jewish.”

To read more about HIAS’ first pro-bono legal training in New York, check out this article in New York Jewish Week, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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