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In the Courts and in the Streets: The Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice and the Right to Asylum

Image via Student Clinic For Immigrant Justice's Facebook page

In January 2020, I took the 30 minute drive from San Diego to the Otay Mesa Detention Center. From the winding road, I could see three flags: the Stars and Stripes, the California Bear, and “CoreCivic,” a private company which operated the center. Stepping out of the van with my Brown Wintersession peers, I came face to face with the brutality of America’s immigration system. The building, enveloped by 10-foot-tall chain link fences with concertina wire, must have contained the most dangerous threats to national security, right? How else could one justify the overwhelming show of force, the “Alcatraz of the Desert” look?

In an almost surreal moment, a young man in a suit exited the building. When I asked who he was, he explained that he was a trial lawyer who had just won an asylum case. He represented a Cameroonian man who fled torture and persecution. The man gave himself up at the border and lived behind bars for nine months. In a few hours, he would be united with his uncle in Maryland. I felt both inspired and horrified at the same time. Looking back at the concertina wire, I could only ask myself, “What the hell is my country doing?” I became determined to shine light on this merciless system and figure out how young people like myself could help change it.  

Applying for asylum is a right under US law, regardless of how one entered the country. Once in the legal system, migrants must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a “membership in a particular social group.” American asylum reflects several international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the “right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution” as a fundamental freedom that transcends nations. In essence, asylum seekers make a plea to the US government for protection, claiming that they cannot return to their countries without risking death or violence due to identities they should not or cannot change. 

As an Ashkenazi Jew, when I see the state of American asylum today, I am reminded of the 900 Jewish passengers on the MS St. Louis. In 1939, they fled Nazi Europe, but were denied refuge in the United States and forced to return. 255 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust. The story of this ill-fated voyage was one of the worst examples of how America’s closed immigration system denied people the protection they needed. Today, because asylum cases are life-and-death referendums, each applicant deserves the utmost attention and support. Unfortunately, the American asylum system denies people this fair chance. Even worse, this status quo is by design. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 (which limited naturalization to “free white persons”), to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the Muslim Ban of 2017, America’s immigration system started as a racist barrier to keep “the other” out and maintains much of this tradition today.  

Currently, nearly 1.5 million cases are pending in American immigration courts, disproportionately from Latin American asylum seekers. Since asylum seekers in the United States do not have a “right to representation” in immigration proceedings, they must pay for a lawyer or rely on pro bono work. This failure creates a major disparity, as immigration courts deny 90 percent of cases when asylum seekers do not have representation. However, when petitioners do have representation, their odds of winning increase fivefold. Represented asylum seekers do not perform better because their rights are different or cases are more valid, but because of their improved ability to navigate a complex legal bureaucracy. Most asylum seekers are not educated in American immigration law and face linguistic, economic, and logistical challenges to preparing their best cases. Unfortunately, there is a massive shortage of immigration attorneys in the United States, especially those who do pro bono work. Just to alleviate the backlog, every already-burnt-out lawyer would need to take on hundreds of additional cases. In short, asylum seekers without representation are destined to fail and there are not enough lawyers to meet the ever-increasing demand. 

The aforementioned statistics clearly reveal a system that is meant to expel people, rather than exercise prudent judgement on one’s particular case. Many politicians claim that asylum seekers do not show up to their court dates and therefore do not “earn” public sympathy or investment. However, data reveals that 99 percent do. This number undermines the narrative that asylum seekers are trying to “game the system” for residency in the United States and supports the idea that they are legitimate petitioners who deserve full due process. 

In August 2020, I worked to establish a Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice program at Brown University. SCIJ is a nonprofit dedicated to closing the asylum-representation gap and fighting for a more just immigration system. It is the only organization in the nation which trains college students to provide legal services to asylum seekers and organize for immigrant justice. Through a 14-session, 40-hour intensive law and community organizing program, student advocates partner with neighboring attorneys to expand their capacity to provide pro bono representation to clients in need. By performing functions that do not require a legal degree, such as conducting intake interviews, researching country condition reports, and filling out the I-589 application form, SCIJ students allow lawyers to take on more cases. Last semester, students involved with SCIJ’s two programs at Brown and Worcester State University provided representation to 16 asylum seekers who would have likely been left to fend for themselves in immigration court. 

While expanding access to representation is a core pillar of SCIJ’s mission, we also believe that it is a band-aid for a patient that needs surgery. Anti-immigrant policies at all levels of government, such as disproportionate surveillance of communities of color and lack of access to public resources, also impact immigrants’ abilities to live in this country with dignity. Therefore, SCIJ also cultivates relationships with local immigrant community members, provides political education and leadership development workshops to student volunteers, and engages students in supporting and advocating for local immigration policy priorities. In this way, community members and students jointly mobilize to take action on local issues to achieve real change. For example, in the past year, SCIJ focused on two main campaigns: ensuring fare-free public transportation in Worcester and a dual campaign in Rhode Island to shut down the Wyatt Detention Center and ensure driver’s licenses for all regardless of immigration status. One of SCIJ’s core values is “Together, We Fight.” This declaration means that we understand that we alone cannot fix the systemic issues of the US immigration system. For this reason, SCIJ engages with community members before, during, and after it partners with schools, a commitment made after conversations with Alianza para Movilizar Nuestra Resistencia (AMOR) in Rhode Island (an alliance of community-based grassroots organizations).

SCIJ also develops intentional relationships with community members because of its unique relationship with universities, which are traditionally complicit in the gentrification of immigrant communities. In addition to its practical benefits for asylum seekers and lawyers, SCIJ provides universities the opportunity to support their neighbors directly through funding greater access to pro bono legal services. Also, given that during our first year, 80 percent of our students were immigrants or first-generation Americans, schools are training the next generation of leaders who are the most invested in this fight and will be for years to come. 

SCIJ’s model proves that undergraduate students have the skills and heart to tackle society’s most pressing problems. While it is not in the scope of this article to provide solutions to every injustice ingrained in America’s immigration system, there are several policies that we believe deserve extra attention. First, every asylum seeker should have access to a lawyer and due process, period. Organizations like the Vera Institute of Justice have advocated for a “universal representation” model for immigrants, consistent with the public defender rights of citizens in criminal proceedings. Second, the Biden Administration should revoke Title 42, a policy which has “largely suspended” the right to asylum since March 2020. Invoked under an obscure provision of US health law by the Trump administration, Title 42 has allowed the federal government to turn away 1.2 million migrants in the name of public health without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum or have a hearing. Despite the CDC complying with the Trump administration’s pressure, scientists have historically claimed there is “no public health rationale to support” using Title 42 to deny people the right to asylum. Non-government experts have also expressed that “the Title 42 order is junk science with no grounding in evidence and flies in the face of public health,” citing the fact that the southern border remains “largely open” to all other travelers. Despite the increased availability of vaccines and Covid-19 tests, the Biden Administration still maintains that Title 42 “is necessary for public health purposes.” The President must reverse President Trump’s deliberate ploy to deny people their right to refuge under US law. 

At SCIJ, we believe that victory is possible through building community power. Access to asylum is a human right and our current system undermines our national mantra of “equal justice for all.” Hopefully, we can create a country where vulnerable migrants receive respect and fairness, not demonization and concertina wire. I am proud to be part of an organization which furthers this goal. However, we are not there yet, so the fight continues. If you are interested in becoming involved with SCIJ, check out our website.