Posted by: Castan Centre | February 14, 2018

The life of an immigration attorney in New York

By Michael Li

It’s been a couple of months since I began interning at Human Rights First in New York City. For those who aren’t familiar, Human Rights First is a non-profit organisation that assists and advocates for refugees. A big part of their work is the Refugee Representation Program (RRP), which provides pro bono legal representation to people seeking asylum in the United States. As an intern, I assist HRF’s attorneys with a variety of legal and administrative tasks. And boy, what a variety it’s been!

Since I’ve been here, I’ve written affidavits, drafted court motions, interviewed clients, attended court proceedings, filled out visa applications, served papers, researched country conditions, edited legal publications, and so many other things. It’s a glimpse into the life of an immigration attorney: every day is different, and no skill goes to spare. One day I’m combing through case law, trying to piece together the standard for proving inadmissibility on a particular ground, the next I’m furiously taking notes during a three-hour interview with a Tibetan client. Occasionally, I’ll get back to my desk to find a legal brief that needs proofreading, or some documents that need to be filed with the Immigration Court, in which case I’ll make my way down to the court building, hustle through the security checkpoint, and finally get yelled at by the clerk for not hole-punching the papers correctly – this is America after all, pal.

I’ve also had the privilege of working directly with HRF’s clients and learning some of their incredible stories. To put it mildly, they’ve been through some pretty rough times. Recurring themes include gang killings, arbitrary imprisonment, female genital mutilation and torture. A woman client came to us with of the worst cases of domestic violence I’d ever seen; reading her file literally made me shiver. But despite these deeply confronting narratives, the work that I do – and the work that everyone at HRF does – is resolutely optimistic. It’s inspiring to see people so determined to rebuild their lives from near ruin – to not let their past trauma control their future. You don’t know courage until you shake hands with someone who, after losing half their family to gang violence and narrowly avoiding the same fate, still manages to greet you with a gleam in their eye and a smile on their face. And of course, whenever one of our clients is granted asylum, we celebrate the good news with a round of Dunkin Donuts – which, I might add, taste strangely better in New York.

As I write this, I have about a month left in my internship and a sinking feeling in my chest. The past two months have gone by so quickly – I can already picture myself on the plane back to Melbourne, sad about leaving New York, wondering where all that time went. I’ve still yet to see a Broadway show (they’re not cheap), and this week I’m going to try to catch Free Fridays at the Museum of Modern Art. This has been a truly incredible experience for me, and I hope to make the utmost of my remaining time.


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