Oct. 3, 2017 — The University of Houston Law Center on Friday hosted the annual Joseph A. Vail Asylum Law Workshop to educate immigration lawyers and advocates on current issues and provide practical information to help them better serve their pro bono clients.
While the main thrust of the day-long program was asylum, primarily for families and children, a special focus this year was placed on challenges immigrants face in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
"We have all been through Harvey," Clinical Associate Professor Geoffrey A. Hoffman, director of the Law Center's Immigration Clinic, said in the opening segment. "Imagine if you are an immigrant, undocumented, DACA, and your documents were lost."
He said he researched FEMA eligibility requirements while volunteering to help immigrant flood victims who had taken refuge at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Benefits are available to non-U.S. citizens, depending on their legal status, he said, including those holding green cards, those granted asylum or admitted as refugees, victims of domestic violence with pending petitions, and others.
"FEMA is under DHS (the Department of Homeland Security)," he reminded audience members. "So there is a risk in applying." He urged them to make sure their client's status is clear before applying for federal aid, help in replacing lost documents, and other immigration relief.
In welcoming remarks, Hoffman defined asylum as protection for those who are unable to return to their countries of origin due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
"A lot of what you learn here today will make you a better lawyer," he said, while urging attorneys to work pro bono for those needing help. "It is a lot of work, and it takes a long time, but it's worth it, and this workshop will hone your skills."
In a presentation she dubbed "Asylum 101," Josephine Sorgwe, a clinical supervising attorney at the Law Center's Immigration Clinic, detailed two visas potentially available to those seeking refuge.
The U-Visa provides asylum to those who are in danger of substantial physical or mental abuse as the result of being the victim of a crime or having knowledge of criminal activity. The key word to eligibility, she said, is "substantial," including being helpful to ongoing law enforcement investigations.
Victims of trafficking who can demonstrate they were subject to "severe force" in being brought to the U.S. for sex or other purposes can apply for a T-Visa.
Successful applicants are given work permits, allowed to stay in the country for four years and may apply for reevaluation of their status after three years. In addition, victims of domestic violence can file for protection under the Violence Against Women Act.
"People are not aware that they may qualify for one of these visas," Sorgwe said, adding that the Immigration Clinic conducts informational sessions throughout the community.
Janet Beck, a visiting clinical assistant professor in the immigration clinic, discussed immigrant juveniles who arrive unaccompanied at the border seeking admittance. She said they must show why they are leaving their country, whether they are fleeing danger or exploitation, joining family, or escaping abuse, neglect or abandonment. They are taken into federal custody, but have no right to appointed counsel. Beck said they may apply for asylum or, in some cases, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status if they have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents.
Anne Chandler, director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center and former interim director of the UHLC Immigration Clinic, spoke about children who similarly arrive at the border unaccompanied.
"There is nothing easy about representing asylum seekers, especially children," Chandler said. "It's a legal mess."
She stressed the importance of communication and coordination among all concerned, including the child, attorneys, multiple social service agencies, the courts, schools, family members and others. While keeping the child informed of action taken on his or her behalf, she said the capacity of the child to understand complicated paperwork and procedures must be considered. She also said attorneys should withdraw if they find themselves in a conflict of interest between the child and relationships with others such as ad litems, guardians or siblings.
Chandler also reminded the audience that reporting of abuse or neglect of a child is mandatory, even if it occurred in a foreign country.
Rosalie Hyde, a clinical social worker and therapist, discussed trauma in the context of children swept up in the turmoil that would lead to a bid for asylum.
"When trauma happens to children, they are developmentally arrested," she said. "From sex abuse to neglect to political terrorism and war, it is just too much to feel.
"Children often repress long-term trauma. They really don't remember, especially under duress like when they are in court," Hyde said, but the signs can be seen in both a numbing loss of joy and sadness and hyperarousal such as anger and fighting. "Trauma is something you don't want to remember."
Other speakers and discussion topics included: Brian Schaeffer, YMCA International Legal Services, "Right to Counsel;" Wafa Abdin, Catholic Charities, "How to Prepare the asylum Application and Ethical Considerations;" Jill Campbell, BakerRipley, "Legal Research and Immigration;" Susham Modi, The Modi Law Firm, and Rosemary Vega, clinical supervising attorney, discussing preparation for a merits hearing and pretrial practice.The CLE workshop concluded with a mock merits hearing relating to qualification of an expert witness in a deportation case involving domestic violence. Retired Immigration Judge Howard E. Rose presided and later answered questions from the audience with fellow retired Immigration Judge William K. Zimmer.
The annual asylum law workshop is named in honor and commemorates the legacy of the late Joseph A. Vail, an immigration judge, lawyer, and Law Center professor who founded the school's Immigration Clinic in 1999.