With asylum cases growing, a nonprofit envisions representation for all
Nearly 1.6 million people are awaiting asylum hearings across the country. The availability of legal representation is a major factor in outcomes for asylum seekers — and whether their cases reach the courts at all.
The holiday season is emotionally difficult for Griselda, a 38-year-old asylum seeker who lives west of Charlotte. It was about this time six years ago when her family home in northern Guatemala was targeted by criminals.
Both of her parents died that night from gunshot wounds, and she suffered debilitating injuries to her arm and leg.
“My mother sold tortillas and firewood. My father grew corn and beans,” she said. “They thought we had money, but it wasn’t like that.”
The family lived modestly, but someone began sending them anonymous threats. They wanted a cut of their earnings — and the family couldn’t keep up.
Extortion is a big business in Central America’s Northern Triangle and one of the drivers of migration from the region. One study, by Global Financial Integrity, found extortion in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador amounted to $1.1 billion annually, victimizing about 330,000 people across income levels each year.
Representation for all
As director of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Immigrant Justice Program, attorney Sharon Dove has heard many stories like Griselda’s.
“A lot of these folks are facing real persecution in the places that they're coming from,” Dove said. “The gangs control everything in the areas where they're from.”
The center is working toward a major goal — to provide affordable legal resources to all asylum seekers in North Carolina.
Nearly 1.6 million people are awaiting asylum hearings across the country. It’s the largest number of pending applications on record, according to TRAC-Immigration at Syracuse University. The availability of legal representation is a major factor in outcomes for asylum seekers - and whether their cases reach the courts at all.
“Even though it's a small number of cases, a huge percentage of the cases that actually get adjudicated and not dismissed are represented,” Dove said. “The reason for that is so few people, a minimal, minuscule number of people can figure out how to file an asylum case without help from an attorney.”
If not for the guidance of a social worker, Griselda and her children would have remained among countless asylum seekers in the state that don’t have an attorney to help them.
Her first attempt at finding an immigration lawyer overwhelmed her. She said one law office quoted her $12,000 to represent the family.
“I didn’t have the money to do it. I returned home in tears,” Griselda said.
She was feeling weary, but she decided to return to a list of lawyers provided by her daughter’s social worker. That’s where she found the contact for attorney Rebekah Niblock at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Niblock now represents Griselda and her family pro bono.
“What we want is representation for asylum seekers,” Niblock said. “There are not too many resources devoted to asylum seekers. It's a very complex and unique area of immigration law and many practitioners don't go there, which I understand. … It's very difficult to win an asylum case anywhere in the country, even more so down South where we are.”
Asylum seekers are not guaranteed legal representation. But 20 years of immigration court data, compiled by TRAC-Immigration, show that when respondents do appear with an attorney, their chances of success are statistically much better.
For respondents with representation, almost half nationwide are granted asylum. For respondents without it, only 15% achieve asylum.
In Charlotte, the numbers are lower. Approval rates drop to 15% for represented respondents and 5% for nonrepresented respondents.
“I would say it's not in their favor [in Charlotte] if they're asylum seekers,” Niblock said. “It's hard to find enough representation in this area as opposed to in New York City or Chicago where there are a lot more immigration attorneys who do asylum or there are a lot more robust pro-bono programs at some of the larger nonprofit organizations.”
The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has been working to bridge the representation gap through free legal clinics, consultations outside of immigration court, and a pro bono representation program. Partnerships with law schools and outside attorneys are helping build capacity. Technology is also an important component, Dove explained.
“We are right now engaged in a major expansion of the program, largely facilitated by technology,” Dove said. “We have Teams, Zoom and WhatsApp. So, our program can facilitate a consult with an immigrant respondent at immigration court and the attorney is in Raleigh or wherever.”
For Griselda, finding a pro-bono lawyer has been an opportunity to get on the right track.
“I put my faith in God first,” Griselda said, “and then in my lawyer Rebekah.”
With Niblock and the center’s help, Griselda and her family have not only secured legal representation, but they’ve also connected with other resources like health insurance and therapy.
Griselda is now dreaming of the future.
“Coming to this country was a blessing,” Griselda said, “because it’s removed some of the fear that something could happen to my children.”
She’d like to learn how to run a business and sell her own food, like her mother did. She envisions having her own location to sell Guatemalan-style tamales.
The Justice Department denied our interview request to discuss Charlotte’s immigration court.