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August 30, 2023

"This Experience Was the Highlight of the Summer”

Brownstein Summer Associates Partner with the ABA Commission on Immigration to Help Afghan Asylum Seekers

By Stephanie M. Baez, Director of Pro Bono

Thank you to the 2023 summer associates from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck for their dedication to helping Afghan asylum seekers with applications for affirmative asylum. Brownstein partnered with the ABA Commission on Immigration (ABA COI) to implement ABA COI’s eight-week Pro Se Asylum Module Series. The Module Series combines lectures and workshops to help empower pro se asylum seekers to build comprehensive applications, including the form I-589 application for asylum, detailed declarations, and supporting evidence. Over the course of eight weeks, Brownstein summer associates, ABA COI staff, and Afghan asylum seekers connected on Zoom for weekly group lectures discussing different aspects of the asylum application, followed by individualized assistance in breakout rooms. 

The applicants who participated in the series had experienced persecution in Afghanistan based on their gender, political opinions, connections with the U.S. military, and membership in minority religious groups. Brownstein summer associates skillfully used trauma-informed lawyering techniques to interview the applicants and build trust throughout the summer. “It is not easy to ask applicants to recall the most traumatic moments of their lives, but the Brownstein summer associates did a fantastic job of listening to these stories while drawing out facts needed for their asylum applications with grace,” said Stacy Kim, an ABA COI Staff Attorney who helped provide guidance and review applications during the Series. “I enjoyed seeing the rapport the applicants and summer associates developed in such a short period of time. I know the applicants were so thankful for the assistance they received on their applications.” 

Throughout the Series, the applicants and summer associates learned about asylum law and procedure. Lectures conducted by ABA COI staff covered topics including asylum basics, the importance of credibility, how to draft a detailed declaration, and what types of supporting evidence to submit with an application. During the workshop sessions, the Brownstein summer associates expertly dealt with challenges and complicated fact patterns. For example, one applicant was extremely hesitant to share any details about his life in Afghanistan, out of fear that his story would get out and his family in Afghanistan might be harmed. The Brownstein summer associates working with this applicant respected his comfort level, explained confidentiality, and provided context as to why they were asking certain questions, to put the applicant more at ease. Kyle-Matthew Taylor, a Brownstein summer associate, reflected that the Module Series “was a wonderful opportunity to work directly with asylum-seeking applicants [and help them] craft a compelling and accurate story.” In building on the applicant’s story each week, he was able to learn “the proper mode of communication to solicit compelling info for an asylum application.” His colleague, Brownstein summer associate John LaLime, noted that throughout the series he was able to develop the skills needed to effectively interview clients. Mr. LaLime explained how powerful it was to get to know the applicants and to hear their stories: “This experience was the highlight of the summer.”  

Recognizing that many asylum seekers do not have access to counsel, ABA COI developed the Module Series as a model to expand capacity through limited representation. “The module series has been an effective program that has helped vulnerable Afghan asylum seekers without representation properly prepare their declarations and evidence for their asylum applications. “Thanks to the Brownstein summer associates, applicants felt empowered to share their personal journeys and their search for safety in the United States,” said ABA COI Program Specialist Edgar Alarcon. Mr. Alarcon has helped facilitate multiple Module Series that ABA COI has conducted in collaboration with legal service organizations, helping both affirmative and defensive asylum applicants complete their applications.  

While pro bono assistance for pro se applicants is an effective way to expand services to those who otherwise would not have any legal assistance, it is not always available, and some applicants may prefer in-depth pro se assistance. Before the Series began, applicants were carefully screened to make sure their cases were appropriate for pro se assistance, and to ensure they possessed the appropriate language and technology skills to meaningfully participate in the Series. Those who are eligible to participate in the Series “gain thorough knowledge of the asylum process in the U.S., and have the opportunity to present a strong asylum claim,” said Mr. Alarcon. “This series is life-changing for many asylum seekers who do not have access to a lawyer and the gratitude received from our applicants is priceless.” 

In addition to the profound impact the Module Series had on the applicants, it also left a lasting impression on the Brownstein summer associates who dedicated their time, energy, and skills to helping Afghan asylum seekers. “Through this process, you get the opportunity to assist those who need it the most” said Brownstein summer associate Ryan Tseng. “I loved being able to help our client. Hearing his stories was very powerful . . . I will remember the impact of this experience for a very long time.” 

Thank you, Brownstein, for your commitment to pro bono work and dedication to supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our community!  

If you are interested in learning more about the Pro Se Asylum Module Series or working with the ABA Commission on Immigration to implement a Series, please contact [email protected].  

About the Author

Stephanie Baez is Director of Pro Bono for the ABA Commission on Immigration (COI).  Stephanie obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, and received her Juris Doctorate from Fordham University School of Law, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude.

Stephanie began her legal career as a litigation associate in the New York office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, LLP.  While at Fried Frank, Stephanie was actively involved in the firm’s pro bono program.  Her first pro bono case was an asylum case with ProBAR, and she traveled to Harlingen, Texas to represent her client at his merits hearing.  Stephanie was also selected to spend one year as the Fried Frank Fellow to Her Justice, Inc., a nonprofit in New York that provides family law and immigration assistance to low-income women.  After her fellowship, Stephanie was honored by Her Justice with the John Geiger Award for Commitment to Justice.  Stephanie next served as a judicial clerk in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York.  Following her clerkship, Stephanie moved to San Diego where she worked at the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, providing direct representation to low-income individuals in need of domestic violence and family law assistance.  As a Supervising Attorney, Stephanie also managed the family law pro bono program and developed initiatives to recruit, mentor and engage pro bono volunteers.  Stephanie’s extensive pro bono experience, both as a volunteer attorney and as a program manager, guide her as COI’s Director of Pro Bono.

Stephanie works out of the Immigration Justice Project office in San Diego.  She is licensed to practice law in California and New York.