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August 29, 2022

“This Will Not Be Like Your Other Asylum Cases”

By Senior Staff Attorney Emily McCabe

My client was prepared and confident walking into his asylum interview. As I accompanied him into the interview room. I watched, winced, and took copious notes of the questions the asylum officer asked him, but I didn’t have to worry, because my client did a wonderful job telling his story. He answered her questions honestly and sincerely. We had planned a quick debrief after the interview but by the time we finished, after four grueling hours at 6:15pm, we were too exhausted (and hungry) to do anything but head home. Overall, the interview went well, but I could see the physical toll on my typically jovial client.

This was not my first visit to the Arlington Asylum Office, but it was by far the longest time I had ever spent in a single interview. And my client speaks fluent English!

I initially took this case on as part of the Afghan Asylum Pro Se + Project through HIAS and the ABA Commission on Immigration. The Project connects Operation Allies Welcome parolees from Afghanistan who are seeking asylum to pro bono legal representation in a remote and limited scope engagement. The Project is designed to match volunteer attorneys with Afghan parolees for the purpose of preparing the asylum application, which includes completing the I-589, Application for Asylum, gathering the related evidence, drafting a cover letter and index of exhibits for the local asylum office, and preparing the applicant for the asylum interview. Then, the applicant goes to the interview on their own, unless the attorney decides to offer representation at the interview. I chose to take my client’s case on for full representation.

The Project supports pro bono attorneys in a variety of ways through toolkits, trainings, weekly office hours, and an incredibly knowledgeable staff. I had the opportunity to join the Project on the ABA side and take on my own local pro bono case. Even though I have been practicing immigration law for years, the expeditious processing for Afghans was new to me. With the expeditious processing, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has 45 days to conduct the initial interview on the asylum application from the date it is filed and 150 days to issue a final decision from the date the asylum application is filed. I devoured the toolkits and support offered by the Project. I was, and still am, always learning something new from the expert staff and the other volunteer lawyers at the weekly office hours. The information served me and my client well because the expeditious processing was faster than I had imagined. And certainly faster than what my client expected!

Seven days after I electronically filed my client’s I-589, Application for Asylum, we received an interview notice for one month later. Once scheduled, the Project was even able to connect me with an attorney who practices in my local jurisdiction, so I could glean his insights. One of the first things he said to me was “this will not be like your other asylum cases.” And he was right. He confirmed the whispers I had heard from other jurisdictions about hours-long interviews and additional screening questions for terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds (TRIG). It was difficult to hear not only as an experienced immigration lawyer who had never faced this in previous cases, but also because many of these folks were evacuated by and because of their ties to the United States. I relayed the information to my client and a few weeks later I saw first-hand what the attorney was referencing during my client’s asylum interview.

It is heartbreaking to tell clients repeatedly that a strong case does not guarantee success. Immigration laws were largely created to keep non-white immigrants out, with clear racism and xenophobia officially codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Many of us in the field still cling to the hope of having a sympathetic immigration judge, opposing counsel, and/or USCIS official/officer assigned our individual cases. While the ultimate decision is never ours as advocates to make, representing asylum-seekers, whether by limited scope or full representation, permits us a compelling opportunity to empower clients and help them navigate a system that was not created for them.

My participation in the Pro Se + Project as a volunteer reignited my passion for immigration justice and advocacy. I aspire to uplift and support the work of others to inch us closer to a more just system, even if I am only able to help one client at a time.

Emily McCabe

Senior Staff Attorney

Emily McCabe (she/her/ella) is a Senior Staff Attorney for the Family Group Legal Orientation Program in the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration. Prior to being at COI, Emily worked for five years as an immigration attorney at Northern Virginia Family Service, representing mostly unaccompanied minors, asylum-seekers, and survivors of trafficking and criminal activity. In law school, Emily participated in the International Human Rights Law Clinic and volunteered for a week with the American Immigration Lawyers Association Pro Bono Project at the Artesia Family Detention Center, where she conducted consults, filed motions, and represented women and their children in bond hearings and credible fear interviews.

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