Applying for asylum in the United States is a significant undertaking. Not only is it high stakes—the Supreme Court emphasizes that being deported can mean losing “all that makes life worth living”—immigration law is extremely complicated. Federal judges have characterized it as second only to tax law in complexity. So it may come as no surprise that studies show immigrants represented by counsel are five times more likely to win their cases than those without representation. Despite the evidence demonstrating that lawyers are vital in immigration hearings and despite the irreparable consequences of deportation, there is no guaranteed right to appointed counsel. Many immigrants are forced to go it alone. For Afghan nationals who are now seeking protection from the Taliban’s retributive violence, volunteer lawyers are essential to ensure they receive access to justice and a lifeline to the life-saving protections that asylum would offer them.
What Is Happening?
In August 2021, the United States helped evacuate 74,000 people from Afghanistan who now need permanent legal status. Among those evacuated are Afghans who put their lives at risk by helping American troops; worked for the previous Afghan government or nongovernmental organizations; or are activists, feminists, artists, scholars, religious leaders, or others in grave danger under Taliban rule.
Unfortunately, there is a nationwide shortage of lawyers willing and able to help arriving Afghans. Particularly because the evacuation of Afghanistan occurred in emergency circumstances, the federal government could not process everyone for refugee status. The result is tens of thousands of people who were cleared for evacuation and must now affirmatively ask for asylum on their own.
Veterans’ groups and immigration advocates are calling on Congress to protect Afghans in the same way that Congress protected those fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in 1977 and those fleeing Cuba in 1966. However, in Montana, there is reason to hope: a brigade of volunteer attorneys has come forward to protect their new neighbors.
What Is Being Done?
A coalition of diverse organizations—the Montana Supreme Court Statewide Pro Bono Program, Montana Legal Services Association, Upper Seven Law, the International Rescue Committee, Alexander Blewett III School of Law, the American Constitutional Society, Respond Crisis Translation, and Soft Landing Missoula—recently organized a training for Montana lawyers to help Afghan nationals applying for asylum. In a remarkable testament to the character and generosity of the Montana bar, the event drew nearly 200 people. More than 50 lawyers and 25 law students have volunteered. For the 125 Afghan people arriving home in Montana, this means a real chance to receive the protection they deserve.
Asylum requires showing that a person is at risk of being “persecuted”—defined as subject to severe physical harm; that the persecution is because of a person’s nationality, race, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group; and that the persecution is governmental or by private actors that the government cannot control. Just imagine reading these requirements in a second language and without legal training.
Supporting these individuals with legal representation ultimately is as critical as meaningful.
How to Get Involved
While the Montana legal community’s outpouring of support is outstanding, Montanans are not alone in welcoming Afghan refugees with pro bono legal support. Lawyers across the country can get involved in these efforts. From Virginia, where a new “Operation Allies Welcome” site is opening, to Human Rights First and the PARS Equality Center in California, many states have similar opportunities available. A simple online search should yield local opportunities for helping out at varying levels of commitment.
Lawyers and law students who work with Afghan asylum seekers are certain to value their experiences. As President Eisenhower explained it:
Nations who in the past have granted entry to the victims of political or religious persecutions have never had cause to regret extending such asylum. These persons with their intellectual idealism and toughness will become worthwhile citizens and will keep this nation strong and respected as a contributor of thought and ideals.