“Never pass up new experiences. They enrich the mind."
― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
This week I am starting a new experience, that I am sure, as Margaret Mitchell predicts, will enrich my mind. I am working for the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN) this summer, and will be living in Atlanta for the first time. GAIN is a small non-profit that provides pro bono legal representation through volunteer attorneys to asylum seekers and immigrant victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes. Because of its location, Atlanta is a major destination for asylum seekers, immigrants, and unfortunately, the trafficking trade. Accordingly, leadership of the Atlanta Bar Association, Catholic Charities, and a handful of associates from several top Atlanta law firms founded GAIN to address the needs of: unrepresented immigrants in the Atlanta area who could benefit from pro bono representation; the U.S. Immigration Court system in Atlanta which needs help facilitating the reasonable and efficient adjudication of unpresented immigrants’ cases; and lawyers who venture into the U.S. Immigration Court system who need mentorship and guidance in immigration law to ensure that they are adequately prepared and able to provide a satisfactory level of representation. Since its inception in 2005, GAIN has grown to include an Office and Development Coordinator, Madeline Hall, and three attorneys as members of its staff: Monica Khant, Executive Director; Alpa Amin, Lead Attorney for the Victims of Violence Program; and William Hoffmann, Senior Counsel. In addition to this dynamic group, which runs the day to day operations, GAIN also has a very involved and supportive board, and makes connections with attorneys throughout the Atlanta legal community to whom they refer pro bono cases and mentor and support throughout the process. Additionally, the law firm, King and Spalding, graciously hosts GAIN in its beautiful offices in Midtown, Atlanta. Not only does this help with GAIN’s office and supply costs, it also makes it very easy for GAIN to refer pro bono cases to King and Spalding attorneys who generously lend their time to helping asylum seekers and immigrant victims of violence.
My first day at GAIN was exciting start to my internship. In addition to a few orientation meetings, I attended two client meetings with Mr. Hoffmann. The first meeting was with a client who Mr. Hoffmann, and two King and Spalding attorneys lending their pro bono services, Nicholas Hill, and Radha Manthe, have already helped submit an application for asylum. Unfortunately, the case is still pending because the U.S. asylum system is facing an enormous backlog of over 450,000 cases. To put this in perspective, the recommended case load for an immigration judge is 600 cases, but each of the 260 immigration judges in the federal system has a load of 1,800 cases. Unfortunately, the client has been waiting about two years for an interview with an asylum officer, the first step in the status determination process of an asylum application. Because the client is from the Central African Republic (CAR), he was more comfortable speaking in French than English. We did not have a translator, so I was able to put my French language skills to use right away. I felt quite rusty; I have had no one to practice with since last summer when I worked for People Against Suffering, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP) in South Africa, where many of the refugees that I worked with from the Democratic Republic of the Congo preferred French for our interviews. Despite my rustiness, I soon learned that he was hoping we could help him apply for a travel document so he can travel to Morocco and Côte d’Ivoire to meet potential donors for his new foundation aimed at improving governance in Africa. The client has a fascinating background in government that he wants to put to use again now that he is not in danger in the U.S. Although he would not be travelling back to the C.A.R. (where he would likely face the same persecution that he fled), unfortunately, Mr. Hoffmann, Mr. Hill, and Ms. Manthe had to inform him that it is incredibly risky for him to travel before he has a decision on his asylum application. There is a potential avenue, called an application for advanced parole, that refugees and other categories of immigrants can use to re-enter the United States after travelling, but the client does not really fit into any of these categories as someone still awaiting an asylum decision. Even worse, the asylum officer could view his decision to travel as abandoning his asylum application, especially because it is not for emergency reasons like a death in his family. Furthermore, with the political situation in the C.A.R. changing almost daily, Mr. Hoffmann, Mr. Hill, and Ms. Manthe worry that by the time he receives an interview, the situation will have normalized to a point that the asylum officer will feel that he no longer needs asylum especially in light of him feeling secure enough to leave the United States while he was awaiting a decision. In short, this was frustrating news to deliver, especially in light of how long he has been waiting for a decision and how long he might have to continue to wait due to the backlog. I hope he will soon be assigned an interview to take him out of this limbo.
The second meeting was with a potential asylum client for GAIN. Mr. Hoffmann wanted to meet with him to get a better picture of his story, and why he thinks he might have a case for asylum. He was from Libya, and had been studying in the U.S. when he befriended a Libyan Jewish man who had been living in the United States since the late 1960s when most Jews were exiled from Libya under the Gadhafi regime. Unfortunately, attitudes towards Jewish people have not changed much with the fall of the Gadhafi regime; there is a power vacuum that has been filled by various militia groups with very conservative Muslim views. The client says that prevailing attitude is that all Jews and friends of Jews are spies for Israel, and thus cannot be loyal to Libya. The client, however, because of his time in the U.S. and his friendship with this Jewish man has developed a different attitude. Consequently, he is now worried about his safety because he heard from a friend that the militia controlling the neighborhood where his family lives found out about his friendship with this Jewish man and has put a warrant out for his arrest. After hearing the client’s compelling story, Mr. Hoffmann decided that GAIN would take on his case, but that he would reach out to King and Spalding attorneys to find someone to assist him. It was a very exciting first day, and I look forward to what this summer will bring. Below are some pictures from GAIN's office.