Posted by: emilyrfischer | January 5, 2015

My first month at Human Rights First

I’ve been in New York for almost five weeks now. Being here over winter has been beautiful so far; I’ve seen light snow a couple of times but have mostly had sunny, clear winter days to explore and wander around the Highline and Central Park. My good run with the weather might be coming to an end though… apparently in three days’ time it will get to – 13ºc.

Walking to work from the train station is a pretty great way to start the day – Human Rights First has recently moved to the Financial District, so every morning I walk past Wall St, the New York Stock Exchange and some decent views of the Hudson. Bluestone Coffee, which was started by a guy from Melbourne, is also just around the corner so that’s a bit of a bonus.

It’s been fantastic getting to know the Refugee Representation team at Human Rights First during the first month of my internship. One thing that really struck me in the first week was the amount of time that the managing attorneys, attorneys and legal assistants devote to interns. Everyone is willing to help, and I’ve been lucky that so many staff members have assisted me in getting my head around U.S. asylum law and the key procedural aspects of the Immigration Court system.

Essentially, Human Rights First allows asylum seekers to access legal counsel by interviewing and screening potential clients, and allocating approved cases to pro bono attorneys who then take on a client’s case. Human Rights First runs training sessions in asylum law for the pro bono attorneys, many of whom work at some of the larger commercial firms in New York City and have little or no experience in immigration law. Attending these training sessions has been a great way to gain at least a basic knowledge of the key areas of U.S. asylum law, and an idea of the many ways in which the U.S. system differs from Australia.

One of the ways Human Rights First finds potential clients is by running screening sessions at the Immigration Court, where many asylum seekers are already in removal proceedings. In my second week at Human Rights First, I went along to one of these sessions and helped a pro bono attorney interview asylum seekers. As you can probably imagine, many people attend these sessions in the hope of securing legal assistance, and obtaining enough information from them can be challenging when there are so many people to be seen, especially given the extremely sensitive nature of asylum seekers’ prior experiences and fear of returning to their home country. It can also be difficult to assess whether people actually have an asylum claim, even when using interpreters. Some people we interview at the court haven’t yet applied for asylum, and when asked whether they have a fear of returning to their home country, they initially answer no. But when you ask a few more questions about what they’ve experienced or what will happen if they are removed from the United States, it becomes clear that they do have a fear of return and could well have a strong asylum claim.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the internship so far is actually being present during client interviews, and then helping attorneys to work on their case. Human Rights First conducts three-hour ‘intake’ interviews in order to get enough information to select which cases will be passed on to pro bono attorneys. These interviews are intense and in-depth, as clients recount their life history, their experiences and their fears. It’s been gratifying to actually be there to meet the clients personally and hear their stories, and to then research the conditions in their country of origin and draft a write-up on their case. It takes time, but I’ve definitely gotten a lot out of being involved in each stage of the process.

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