Posted by: Laura John | March 1, 2013

Concrete Jungle

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York,
New York

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 14 (taken at the UN)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 14 (taken at the UN)

New York may be the ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ but for many asylum seekers it’s just a concrete jungle full-stop. This jungle of forms, rules and bars to asylum (such as the one-year-from-arrival filing deadline featured in this blog) is extremely difficult to navigate without the assistance of legal counsel.

In my last blog, I talked about the impact of legal representation in determining whether an asylum seeker will be successful in their case. One way that Human Rights First works to provide asylum seekers with legal counsel is through the Asylum Representation Program. As part of this program, we conduct screenings at the New York Immigration Court every month. I was able to attend the February screening last week.

The screenings take place in the Pro Bono Room at the court which is a small, window-less room with one desk and a photocopy machine straight out of the 1960s. Asylum seekers looking for legal representation fill out a questionnaire in the waiting room and then we conduct a short 20 minute interview to determine the key aspects of their claim.

The number of asylum seekers who attend the screenings varies from month to month. We had a particularly busy day last week, with 15 asylum seekers coming in the hopes of finding representation. I interviewed asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Ecuador with claims ranging from domestic violence to political opinion. Each was grateful for the opportunity to tell their story and each story was both touching and upsetting to hear.

Unfortunately, we have limited resources and are unable to provide each asylum seeker with representation. The questionnaires they complete are reviewed by my supervisor at Human Rights First, and those with the strongest asylum claims are invited for a full intake interview (see my first blog for details). Although I would prefer to be able to find representation for all 15 of the asylum seekers who attended the screening, I was happy to see that two who I interviewed have been invited back for a full intake interview. Hopefully, we will be able to place them with pro bono attorneys who will represent them for free. The others will be placed on the wait list or will need to approach other organizations for assistance.

Funding for the Asylum Representation Project is provided by the Leon Levy Foundation, which offers a generous two year fellowship for an attorney at Human Rights First. The first term of the fellowship ends in September this year. It is my hope that the significant impact of the program will be recognized and it will be renewed for a second term. Further, as I mentioned in my last blog, one of the key recommendations from the recent “Building Justice” conference was replicating this model at the immigration court in New Jersey. It is exciting to think of the possibility of this model being rolled out in other locations, and asylum seekers across the country finding someone to guide them through the legal jungle.

Chelsea High Line

Chelsea High Line

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