Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy helps 15 immigrants file for asylum in free clinic
Laura was 17 years old when she fled her home country of El Salvador. That was in 2018. She moved to Charlotte with her son, who was 2 years old at the time. She says she was being threatened by the gang that took responsibility for her brother’s disappearance a few years prior. We’re not using her full name because of her pending immigration status.
“They started threatening me, saying that if I didn’t collaborate with them to smuggle drugs and things like that, they could do the same thing they did to my brother,” Laura said.
She’s sitting in a conference room at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Her son is with her and so are her two other kids, whom she had after arriving in the U.S. They’re watching a show on Laura’s phone while she goes over immigration paperwork with an employee from the center.
Laura was one of the 15 people selected to participate in the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s first asylum clinic. The clinic is intended to help asylum seekers and their families file their paperwork, says immigration attorney Rebekah Niblock.
“It's just nice for them to get that legal advice,” Niblock said. “And we're doing this all, of course, free of charge.”
Unlike refugee status, asylum seekers must be in the U.S. in order to get asylum. They have one year after arriving in the country to file their paperwork.
That’s why CCLA chose to hold the asylum clinic.
The participants aren’t clients of the center and won’t be represented by its attorneys. However, through the clinic, they have the opportunity of sitting with an attorney to go through the more than eight-page application.
“We're still doing a thorough legal screening. We take an hour or two hours to really go over their case with them, and then we don't just let them leave here kind of confused,” Niblock said. “We send them to another part of the flow chart of our clinic with our other attorney to explain the next steps and ask them if they have any other questions.”
Laura found out about the clinic after a social worker recommended she reach out to CCLA. Her court date was coming up and she couldn’t find an attorney to help her.
She says she called the center and was screened and selected to participate in the clinic. Laura met with law students from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, which partnered with CCLA for the event. The students helped her fill out the paperwork before meeting with Niblock at the in-person clinic.
“I was happy because it’s a great help,” Laura said. “I was going to have my court date soon, and there were so many things I kept hearing about deportation, and I’m afraid of going back to my country because of the threats.”
Laura has been in the country for more than one year without filing her paperwork. However, she’s protected under the 2020 Mendez-Rojas ruling, which gave a filing extension to some asylum seekers.
The filing deadline for those cases is April 22. Niblock says that’s part of why CCLA chose to host the clinic on March 26.
“Overall goal is to, of course, be able to expand our legal services,” Niblock said. “Although we're not representing the clinic participants, we're still helping them meet this crucial deadline for asylum seekers and protect their rights as asylum seekers.”
In addition to getting a legal screening and a presentation on their rights, clinic participants were also given a list of immigration attorneys.
Immigration law is complex, therefore legal representation for these types of cases is crucial, says Niblock.
But according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, North Carolina ranks last in the U.S. for legal representation. Out of the more than 34,000 pending immigration cases, only 8,000 have an attorney representing them.
The cost of legal representation is often a barrier for immigrants.
To add to this, the Charlotte Immigration Court is one of the toughest in the nation. In the last three years, more than 85% of asylum cases have been denied.
Asylum seekers are allowed to apply for a work permit while their case is being processed. Niblock says CCLA is working to host a second clinic in August to help participants file for their work permits.
“So that they can get a job, have some stability and hopefully be able to hire a private attorney or, you know, 'low bono' attorney to represent them in their asylum claim,” Niblock said.
Laura isn’t only filing asylum paperwork for herself, her son is also in removal proceedings at the Immigration Court. She says her kids are her priority.
“My dream is to give my kids a better life,” she said.
Niblock says the plan is to continue hosting these asylum clinics on a bimonthly basis to help more families like Laura’s. She says many people have good claims for asylum but sometimes they need extra support filling out the paperwork to get these protections.