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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Attorney as Counselor; Attorney as Cheerleader

    It's not easy to be an asylum seeker these days. Between the government's efforts--often disingenuous--to undermine asylum claims, the long delays, and the unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, the process has become more stressful and more unfair than at any time in recent memory.


    Some people just weren't meant to be cheerleaders.


    It's also become more difficult for attorneys who represent asylum seekers. Given the government's unpredictability, we can’t easily advise our clients or evaluate their cases. It's also harder to help them understand the process and to predict how long they will wait for an interview or a decision. In other words, it's more difficult to serve as a counselor for our clients.

    It's also more difficult to offer our clients encouragement and hope. The long delays and hostile environment have made the asylum process (and the immigration process in general) more stressful. Clients need a sense of hope, and they need to feel someone is on their side. Hence, attorney as cheerleader.

    Fulfilling both jobs—counselor and cheerleader—is not easy, and at times, the two roles can be contradictory. So how can we as lawyers provide honest counsel and still offer our clients hope?

    First, I have found that even clients in the most dire circumstances appreciate hearing the unvarnished truth about their cases. Especially in the beginning, when it is time to evaluate the case and present the client her options, it is important not to sugarcoat the odds of success or gloss over potential obstacles. I sometimes have a tendency towards pessimism when I evaluate a case, as I don’t want to give the client unrealistic expectations. I also want the client to know what she is up against, so she can make her own decisions about how to proceed.

    Also, of course, it is very important for the client to understand the problems in the case. Is there a one-year bar issue? Or other bars to asylum? Are there potential credibility problems? Is there important evidence that will be difficult to obtain? All this we need to know, so that the client and the lawyer together can prepare the strongest possible case.

    The client needs to understand the process of seeking asylum, in all its dysfunctional glory. He needs to know how long a case might take, and whether it will likely be referred to court. He also needs to know about the limits of what we lawyers know. The fact is, the system is a mess. Even people working within the system often cannot predict how long a case will take, and lawyers like me certainly don’t know. We have to convey this uncertainty to the client, so he can understand the range of possible events. With the most accurate (albeit limited) information available, the client can make the best possible decisions for himself and his family.

    In short, it is very important that the client understand his situation as clearly as possible, so he can prepare his case, make informed decisions, and have some sense of his prospects for success. But once the client understands the case and decides to go forward, he needs support and hope. He needs to feel that success is possible, and that he won’t be stuck forever in limbo. This is where the cheerleading comes in.

    The process of seeking asylum is long (despite—or maybe because of—LIFO). It’s also grueling. Many clients want to forget about the bad things that happened to them back home. But for those mired in asylum-land, they cannot put traumatic events behind them. Also, many asylum seekers are separated from their families, which is particularly difficult and stressful for those with young children. There’s also the overall uncertainty of not knowing whether you can stay in the U.S. or you will have to leave. Should you buy a house? Build a life? What if your case is denied and you lose it all? Any human being living through such uncertainty will feel stress, but it’s even worse for asylum seekers, many of whom have suffered trauma, and whose family members may still be in danger. People in this situation need hope.

    There is a school of thought—which was already outdated when I was in law school—that the client’s emotional needs are not the attorney’s problem. If the client needs a shoulder to cry on, he should find a friend. Or a therapist. It doesn’t help that we lawyers don’t receive much training in counseling, and that we’re usually super busy and don’t have time to sit and listen to the client’s troubles. There's also the issue of attorney burn-out. Getting too emotionally involved in a case can lead to more stress and less objectivity, which is not good for the lawyer, or, ultimately, for the client. Despite all this, lawyers can offer clients hope and positivity in order to help them get through the difficult process of asylum.


    How to do this? One way is to focus on aspects of the case that are within the client's control: Obtaining evidence and witnesses, preparing the affidavit, applying for the work permit, trying to expedite or short-list the case. Much of the asylum process cannot be influenced by the client (or the lawyer), and so taking steps that are within the client's power at least gives her a sense of agency.


    We can also encourage clients to live their lives as normally as possible: Get a job, go to school, get married, have children. To the extent possible, it is better to build a life, instead of allowing the uncertainty of an asylum case to rule your day-to-day existence.


    Finally, we can try to emphasize the positive aspects of the case. Once the client is going forward with the case and understands the challenges, there is no point in focusing on the negative. If it's very unlikely that your client can overcome the one-year bar, for example, do everything possible to help the client demonstrate an exception to the bar, but once that is done, offer the client some encouragement: Some Immigration Judges or Asylum Officers will interpret the bar more liberally, maybe the client will get lucky, etc.


    These are difficult times for asylum seekers in the U.S. As attorneys, we have to continually push ourselves to be more compassionate and more patient. I know personally how difficult that can be, but if we want to best serve our clients and stand up to the forces against them, that is what we must do.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: asylum, lawyer Add / Edit Tags
  2. Do I Really Need an Asylum Lawyer?

    Asking a lawyer whether you need a lawyer for your asylum case is kind-of like asking a pastry chef whether you should have dessert. My answer: Of course you should hire a lawyer, and have a double helping of Windsor Torte while you’re at it.

    A decent lawyer can help you prepare and present your case, and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. However, there are some people who need a lawyer more than others, and if your resources are limited, you will have to decide how best to prioritize your needs.

    "I don't need a doctor - I'll fix it myself!"
    So how do we know that a lawyer actually improves the chances for success? And who really needs a lawyer, anyway?


    First, there has been at least one statistical analysis of how lawyers impact asylum cases, and the result is pretty definitive: Lawyers matter. A study of asylum decisions in Immigration Court by TRAC Immigration finds that, on average, asylum applicants with a lawyer win about 51.5% of their cases. Asylum applicants without a lawyer win only about 11% of their cases (the effect was even more disparate for “priority” cases involving women and children). That’s a big difference, but there are a few caveats to these numbers.


    For one thing, the cases reviewed in the study were in court. Such cases are adversarial, and can be procedurally complex, as compared to cases before the Asylum Office. Thus, it is harder for an unrepresented applicant in court to win his case. Also, some applicants receive pro bono (free) legal assistance. However, it is more difficult to get a pro bono attorney if you have a weak or meritless case (or if you have criminal convictions). This creates a vicious cycle, where applicants with bad cases are less likely to receive legal representation, and I think it probably skews the statistics, making it appear that people without lawyers are more likely to lose their cases (since people with weak cases have a harder time finding legal representation). Even considering these factors, it does appear that competent representation makes it more likely that an applicant will be granted asylum.


    But if you are like many asylum seekers, you have limited resources. Attorneys can be expensive, and pro bono representation can be difficult to secure. So who really needs an attorney, and who can get by without one?


    If your case is before an Immigration Court, it is best to have a lawyer. Most judges will pressure you to get a lawyer, and they will usually give you an extension of time to find an attorney. Court cases are adversarial, which means that if the ICE attorney aggressively opposes relief, it can be very difficult—even for an applicant with a strong case—to effectively present his case, avoid any pitfalls, and obtain a grant.


    For applicants whose cases are before the Asylum Office, the story is a bit less clear-cut. Asylum Office cases are (supposedly) non-adversarial. The procedural requirements are generally (but not always) less stringent. Many people prepare their cases and attend the asylum interview without the help of a lawyer (some use paid “translators,” with mixed degrees of success), and there are many examples of pro se (unrepresented) applicants who receive asylum. There are, however, some red flags, which, if present, militate in favor of hiring an attorney.


    Asylum applications may be denied if they are not filed within one year of the alien’s arrival in the U.S. There are exceptions to this rule, but if you are filing for asylum more than a year after you’ve come to the United States, it is a good idea to have an attorney.


    Asylum applications can also be denied if the applicant has been convicted of a crime, or if the applicant “persecuted” others in her home country (or elsewhere). If you’ve been convicted of a crime, or if you fall into a category where the U.S. government might suspect you of persecuting others (such as police officers, members of the military, members or supporters of armed groups), you should have a lawyer.


    In addition, people who provided “material support” to terrorists are barred from asylum. Unfortunately, that covers a broad range of activities. So if you’ve given money or any type of support to a terrorist group—even if you did it under duress—you need a lawyer. Doctors who treated combatants fall into this category.


    Other issues that might require the help of an attorney include travel back to the home country (especially after an instance of persecution), or living in a third country before coming to the United States.


    Finally, to win asylum, the applicant must show that she faces persecution “on account of” race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. If you do not obviously fit into one of these categories, it is helpful to have an attorney, who can make a legal argument that your case falls into a protected category, and that you are thus eligible for asylum.


    Even if there are no obvious issues in your case, a lawyer’s advice can be helpful. Sometimes, there are problems in a case that are not apparent until a lawyer reviews it. You are far better off identifying and addressing such issues before they become a problem. For those who cannot afford an attorney, or who choose to do their cases pro se, it is possible to win. But some cases are more difficult to win than others, and-especially for these problem cases—the help of a competent attorney can make all the difference.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: asylum, lawyer Add / Edit Tags
  3. Lawyers vs. Clients

    Presenting an asylum case to an Immigration Judge or an Asylum Officer can be tricky business. There are an infinite number of ways to tell the story: How much detail to include, what to keep out, how to deal with derogatory facts. Not surprisingly, sometimes lawyers and their clients have different ideas about how the case should look. So what happens when lawyers and clients disagree?
    CYA
    First, we should acknowledge that there are areas where the lawyer’s interest and the client’s interest are in harmony, and other areas where those interests diverge. For example, both the lawyer and the client want to win the case. They both would like to finish the case as quickly as possible. They both want a good relationship with the other.

    There are also areas where the lawyer’s and the client’s interests differ. The lawyer often wants to do less work on the case, while the client wants the lawyer to do more work. The lawyer has to deal with many cases, but the client wants her case, and her phone calls and emails, to receive the highest priority. The lawyer has her own ideas about how the case should be presented; the client may have a different idea. For attorneys in private practice (like yours truly), the lawyer wants to charge more money; the client wants to pay less. A good (i.e., ethical) attorney generally puts his own interests behind those of his client, but only to an extent, and when discussing “lawyers vs. clients,” it is helpful to acknowledge that there are inherent tensions in the relationship.


    Here, though, I am less interested in the tension related to workloads and fees, and more interested in conflicts that arise between the attorney and her client with regards to strategy—how to present the case. But that conflict does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it must be viewed in the context of all the other tensions inherent in the relationship, and—to make matters worse—it exists in the stressful environment of an asylum case, which can have life-changing implications for the client and her family. All this, we must keep in mind.


    So what to do when the lawyer and the client cannot agree?


    It happens to me periodically that I have a client who has his or her own idea about how a case should be presented, and that idea conflicts with what I think best. It is perhaps one of the downsides of experience, but the more cases I do, the less patience I have for clients who question my judgment. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that I am sometimes wrong, and if my experience blinds me to that fact, I am clearly disserving my client. For this reason, I try to practice humility and always carefully consider the client’s viewpoint. As the old prayer goes: "Lord, give me patience, and give it to me right now!"


    Sometimes, however, the client is simply wrong about something: A "friend" told the client to hide her trip to Iran from the U.S. government; a person who is still legally married but separated wants to claim that he is single on an immigration form; someone with a criminal conviction wants to explain to the Judge that "it wasn't my fault!" In cases like these, the lawyer needs explain the problem, and usually the client understands (the U.S. government probably already knows about the trip to Iran, so trying to hide it is a mistake; even though you are separated, you need to indicate "married" unless the marriage is terminated by death or divorce; the Judge wants to hear you take responsibility for the crime, apologize, and explain how you will not repeat the same mistake).


    Other situations are more subtle: The client wants to add too much irrelevant information to her asylum affidavit, for example. In a situation like this, I explain my point of view (the fact-finder will become frustrated if they get bogged down in unimportant details and it will distract from the thrust of the case) and usually the client agrees. If not, as far as I am concerned, it's the client's case and ultimately it's his decision to make. My concern is that the client's decision is made knowingly (maybe this is why lawyers are called "counselors" and not "deciders").


    In cases where the client and I cannot agree, and where I think the client's decision will negatively affect the outcome of the case, I write down my position and make the client sign it. It's rare that I have to do this, but I want to have a record of what happened in case the client decides to blame me for losing the case (the technical term for this is CYA - "cover your ***"). Also, if I make the client sign such a document, it helps underscore the seriousness of the client's decision, and hopefully dissuades him from harming his case.


    My feeling is that it is better to avoid a conflict with the client before it begins. So what can be done to minimize conflicts related to case presentation?


    The most obvious solution is communication, and this is primarily the lawyer’s responsibility. As lawyers, we need to be transparent about what we do. If we over-sell our services, and promise the client the moon and the stars, we really can’t complain when the client expects us to deliver. It's the same with case presentation. The client needs to understand the lawyer's role, and what the lawyer can and cannot do (we can't help a client lie, for example). I find it helpful to show potential clients examples of my work, so they have an idea how their case will look at the end of the process. I also outline how we will prepare the case, what we need from the client, what my assistants will do, and what I will do. I also try to give them an idea about what we don't know--primarily, how long the case will take, given the very long backlog. To paraphrase the old ad, a well educated client is our best customer.


    For many--if not most--asylum seekers, the process is stressful and scary. They are separated from loved ones and living with great uncertainty. As lawyers, we absorb some of that stress. By communicating effectively with our clients, we can reduce their stress and our own, and we maximize the chances for a successful outcome in their case.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: asylum, client, lawyer Add / Edit Tags
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