By Salem Amare, J.D. Class of 2023
Picture this: you make the very difficult decision to leave behind your home, your family, and all that you have ever known to seek asylum in the United States. You soon realize that arriving in the United States is only the beginning of the lengthiest, most trying, and most uncertain legal proceeding of your life. As you are lost and confused in a nation so foreign to you, you are expected to prove the severity of your case before an immigration judge. You are expected to fill out endless forms, compile affidavits, gather various documents as evidence, keep up with court dates, and tailor a coherent and compelling legal argument. To make a difficult situation even worse, you quickly learn that you are not entitled to court-appointed legal counsel. No, you either proceed pro se (represent yourself), hire a private attorney, or hope you can find a legal organization or an attorney dedicated to providing low-cost or free immigration legal services. This is the unfortunate reality of many asylum seekers in the United States…it certainly was the reality for my family.
When immigration officers at USCIS informed my family and me that our case was in shambles, extremely costly, and next to impossible without an attorney, we were at a loss. Unable to afford a private attorney and with no knowledge of what resources were out there, we prayed for a miracle. And truly, a miracle happened. In the midst of our chaos, we were fortunate enough to have been put in contact with an immigration attorney who took our case pro bono. From start to finish, he fought for us, making sure we understood every step of our case. Yet our journey from asylum to permanent residency then to eventual naturalization took nearly fourteen years. Even with a seasoned immigration attorney by our side, we battled for our place in this country for what seemed like forever. Sadly, the harsh reality is that success stories like mine are rare.
As I now sit on the other side of these immigration proceedings, one thing still remains clear: change to the immigration system is long overdue. The legal system is complicated enough as it is. As a law student, on top of a bachelor’s degree, I must go through an additional three years of law school to one day be able to represent my clients in court. So, how can we expect those who come to this country, fleeing violence, experiencing trauma, facing financial struggles, and often with a difficult language barrier in their way to confidently and sufficiently represent themselves in court? We should not. It is an absurd and cruel expectation but it is the current way our system works. If immigrants in the midst of legal proceedings are not entitled to court-appointed counsel, the least that can be done is to support nonprofits and pro bono attorneys who represent them. However, organizations, nonprofits, and attorneys who provide low cost or pro bono immigration legal services are few and far between, especially in rural or smaller urban areas like Hampton Roads. This is precisely why the work of the Immigration Clinic is so important. The Immigration Clinic and similar nonprofits give immigrants hope and a true fighting chance at climbing the mountains which stand so boldly before them.