Posted by: Castan Centre | March 15, 2016

American ideals, universal values.

by Geerthana Narendren

It’s been almost six weeks since I packed my bags and left Melbourne for New York. Like most people, experiencing New York for the first time was surreal. It’s truly the capital city of the world.  Whether it be walking across the brooklyn bridge, enjoying one of the famous art galleries or taking in a broadway show (I’ve seen five so far!), there is never a dull moment.

After spending my first four days ticking places off my tourist ‘to do’ list and combatting jetlag, I arrived the day after Martin Luther King Day for my first day at Human Rights First.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of working at a dynamic and well-respected NGO in New York City.  Human Rights First is a nonprofit founded in 1978 to advocate ‘American ideals’ including America’s longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law.  HRF has several different teams including The Refugee Representation Program (‘RRP’) team, which is where I work. The RRP team is filled with people from all walks of life, who have a diverse range of experiences. Some are former commercial lawyers, lifelong human rights advocates and even one Pulitizer Prize winning journalist, all bound together by a commitment to help asylum seekers navigate the labrynth that is U.S legal system.

In terms of my work at HRF , undoubtedly the most challenging part has been getting my head around U.S asylum law. Similar to Australian asylum law, U.S asylum law is derived from international law, principally the Refugee Convention and Protocol.  The major difference in U.S asylum law is that the process of applying for asylum depends on whether you have anaffirmative or defensive asylum claim.

If an asylum seeker is detained while trying to cross the U.S-Mexico border or they are found by the Immigration Officials to be living in the U.S without authorization before making their asylum claim, the asylum seeker is placed in ‘removal proceedings’ and makes a defensive claim to stop their deportation. Their case is heard by an immigration judge at a merits hearing, who decides to accept or deny their asylum claim.

If an asylum seeker enters the U.S with a valid visa (i.e. a student visa) and applies for asylum before their visa expires or they are found by Immigration Officials to be living in the U.S without authorization, the asylum seeker goes through the affirmative process. In the affirmative process, asylum seekers are given an interview with an asylum officer who will decide to grant or deny their request . If the asylum officer does not grant the asylum claim based on the interview, the individual’s application becomes a defensive application.

If that sounds confusing – it’s because it is! The process is by no means ‘user friendly’ and changes constantly, especially due to the politicised nature of immigration policy in U.S politics at the moment.  Trying to become familiar with the naunces and idiosyncracies of U.S asylum law (such as the one year filing deadline) I can’t help but wonder how asylum seekers who aren’t fortunate enough to have legal assistance must feel trying to claim asylum. I can only imagine they would feel overwhelmed, scared and nervous about explaining to an asylum officer or immigration judge some of their most personal and traumatizing experiences.

Knowing this makes my time at HRF seem even more valuable and worthwhile. Through providing free legal assistance and mentoring lawyers from New York law firms to take on asylum cases pro bono, HRF is able to make a positive and tangible impact on the U.S asylum process.  This is extremely important as it’s been proven that with legal representation, asylum seekers are five times more likely to win relief.  In fact, HRF has had a favourable outcome in ninety percent of its representation cases. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some of these cases and see first hand the impact that HRF has on asylum seekers’ lives. It’s been an incredible experience to work alongside the RRP team and I can’t wait to see what challenges and new opportunities the next few weeks brings.

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