Minnesota Law Students, Faculty, and Staff Provide Legal Support to Afghan Refugees
Working through the Law School's James H. Binger Center for New Americans, the team rendered assistance to Afghan guests at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin
Several Minnesota Law students recently joined faculty and staff from the James H. Binger Center for New Americans to provide legal support to Afghan refugees on the Fort McCoy military base in Wisconsin. The team helped the refugees understand the complex and often challenging U.S. immigration system, prepare their asylum or special immigrant visa applications, and get connected to a nationwide network of lawyers.
Nearly 13,000 Afghans have passed through Fort McCoy since fleeing their native country last summer. When the Binger Center staff learned of the need for volunteer immigration attorneys and paralegals to help with the overwhelming caseload, they reached out to the lawyers in the Ft. McCoy Operation Allies Welcome legal clinic, operated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Minnesota Law team aided an estimated 70-95 Afghan guests over three days in late January, says Deepinder Singh Mayell, executive director of the Binger Center. While these refugees are granted temporary status to stay in the U.S. for up to three years, Mayell says there is hope that Congress will pass an adjustment act to streamline the asylum process, given the volume and unique situation of these refugees. Until that time, each Afghan guest must file for asylum or a special immigrant visa.
“The people we saw were evacuated with barely anything and now must file asylum claims to secure permanent status,” says Mayell. Refugees are not given an attorney, and they often need interpreters, who can be a challenge to find for languages such as Dari and Pashto, he notes.
“Asylum claims can be complex, and families are sometimes broken apart,” says Mayell. “It can be incredibly stressful. I was impressed by how much care the community at Fort McCoy provided one another. The Afghan people showed up every day to translate and give support wherever it was needed.”
Despite the challenges, Mayell said a spirit of hope permeated the base. “People are glad they got out and are eager to take the next steps,” he says. “From a legal standpoint, their claims are strong, and many have been working with the U.S. military. They are motivated and resourceful, and their stories were an inspiration for the whole team.”
Mahmoud Ahmed, community outreach and program coordinator for the Binger Center, says he, too, was encouraged by the “positivity of the people” at Fort McCoy. “I came in thinking it was going to be one thing, but instead I found some happiness and a lot of joking,” he says. “Of course, we also heard terrible things about people who had been tortured and killed by the Taliban. There was both an extreme morbidity and an extreme lightness.”
Nicole Carter, 1L, spent her time at Fort McCoy doing intake interviews. “It is hard to capture
the experience fully,” she says. “We all wanted to be there doing the work but obviously the
clients have been through horrible and traumatic things. It felt good to be productive and to help
people get further along in the immigration process. They have made a lot of sacrifices and they
deserve to be supported.”
Carter, who chose Minnesota Law because of its strength in human rights and immigration programs, says the experience at Fort McCoy has motivated her to stay in this area of law. She is pursuing internships focused on immigration policy.
Carli Cortina, 2L, jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the Binger Center. “I was both challenged and amazed,” she says. “Some people had beautifully prepared asylum applications and others came in at square one. Some were perfectly fluent English speakers and others needed interpreters. It felt especially good to help people get connected with a lawyer to help them as they resettle.”
On the return trip home, Ahmed said the group had time to process the events of the three days. “We came to get work done and to show people that we care,” he says. “I think we succeeded in doing that.”
For Mayell, watching the students engage and take full advantage of the opportunity was gratifying. “Because of the pandemic, students are hungry to see clients in person,” he says. “The four who went to McCoy were totally energized. You don’t always have opportunities to get that close to a global incident.”
Cortina agrees. “I told Deepinder on the way home that if we could, we would literally take off a semester to do this kind of work.”
Coryn Johnson, 1L (not pictured) was also a member of the team assisting the Aghan regugees.
Kathy Graves is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.