New York is a popular destination for immigrants seeking protection from violence, political oppression or poverty back home. Over the past decade, however, as gangland violence has escalated in Central America, U.S. immigration courts have become overwhelmed by the number of people seeking refuge.
Tens of thousands are unaccompanied children who often lack lawyers or advocates during their deportation hearings. For that reason, several dozen people attended an intensive two-day training at New York Law School recently. The workshop was designed to help qualify them to represent clients at New York’s federal immigration courts, which are among the nation’s busiest. Most will volunteer their services.
Attorney Camille Mackler of the New York Immigration Coalition was the workshop instructor. She explained why the training is necessary for lawyers and lay advocates alike.
“Right now, there are about 50,000 cases pending in front of the New York City immigration court. The average case is four years from start to finish, just because the judges are so busy and the immigration courts are so underfunded, that there just aren’t the resources needed for the number of people who are on the docket.”
Mackler acknowledges that immigrants, especially children, might welcome the chance to stay in New York for four years while waiting for their hearing.
“But you need to know you have a case you can apply for because you can just go in front of the judge and not know you are eligible [for relief, such as refugee status or special juvenile protected status]. Eighty percent of the children are entitled to some form of relief under the laws that exist today, but they don’t know that. It takes somebody trained in that area to know.”
Nigerian-born Olubunmi Segun of the Harlem-based African Services Committee received her law degree in England. She says she hopes the workshops will help her gain competence and reduce stress for her and her clients, many of whom have lived in the United States for years.
“Home is here now,” said Olubunmi with a sigh. “They’ve had kids there, and become acclimatized. And when you step into immigration court, they trust you. And I feel a lot of pressure… to deliver. So that’s why I’m here - to understand the little bits and tricks for how best you can diligently assist them and ensure that they get to remain here.”
Fellow trainee Abir al-Harizi is a lay immigrant caseworker for the Arab American Association of New York, a grassroots non-profit organization. Abir says she wants to help others avoid the demoralizing uncertainty she underwent for 10 years beginning in 2001, when she emigrated from Yemen. “You cannot work. You cannot get a job. You cannot establish a life, and that could lead you to the dark sides of your life…”
There are many other reasons why lawyers and laypersons take immigration advocacy training. Some see it as a social justice issue: they say everyone should be given adequate representation in court; if an immigrant cannot afford an advocate, the state should provide one. One trainee who works for a social services agency wants to help her HIV-positive clients get their deportation orders deferred if they are unable to obtain or afford AIDS medication back home.
Either way, the training will continue if only because the tide of immigrants seeking to live in the United States will almost certainly continue to rise, and with it, the strain both on the courts and on individuals hoping to start a new life in America.