Need for immigration and asylum reform from a student caseworker’s perspective

Syrian refugees walking along Budaorsi Street on their way out of Budapest. Marissa Piccolo has been working on refugee cases with her alumni mentor. (Photo courtesy of Freedom House/Flickr Creative Commons)

For the past several months, I have been assisting my UConn alumni mentor with three cases of different refugees seeking asylum in the United States. I expected to learn a lot by engaging hands-on with the process to complement what I had have heard policymakers and journalists say about “immigration reform” and “the refugee crisis” in the abstract and in the news, along with, hopefully, feeling I had made a difference. What I did not expect, however, was the extent to which frustration would overshadow many of the positive aspects of the experience and degree to which I would feel so consumed. Rather than optimistic or, self-indulgently feeling good about volunteering my time, I often would find myself visibly bothered coming back to campus after meetings, literally unable to focus in class.

Prior to this experience, I would have considered myself pro-refugee, pro-immigrant and a believer in comprehensive immigration reform. I still believe all of those things. But now I would more directly tell you the debates we are having at the moment about refugees in our country is more than just about policy – it is quite literally a question of who we are as a nation. That is not to say policies or debates about the details of immigration reform aren’t urgent or important, in fact it’s just the opposite.

Even just small changes in the bureaucratic, red-tape process by which asylum-seekers become citizens can facilitate it drastically and quite literally change lives. Yet those changes won’t happen, and we won’t even get there to have substantive discussion about policy details, if we don’t re-center ourselves as a country and have a gut check. These experiences have made me more proud to be born in this country, more cognizant and aware of the true privilege it is to be born an American given the years of hoop-jumping so many have gone through in hopes of becoming one. We are not a perfect country. But people still come here because they fear persecution in their home countries on the basis of religion, ethnicity and political opinion. We were largely founded by colonists who left from England for the same reasons.

It is quite remarkable to sit across a table from someone with a life experience completely unfathomable and different from yours and think that someday he or she will have equal citizen status, and be just as American as you are. It’s largely remarkable in its un-remarkableness, the small talk we make. They’ll talk about community events at their church, or jobs pumping gas at a gas station the week before. I wonder how many refugees I have encountered in my life without even realizing it.

Yet as we continue with our meetings, I find myself hearing more of their stories and still not knowing how to respond. What do you say when someone tells you their brother was kidnapped and held for ransom by rebels in Libya? Rather than being overly self-critical of my lackluster conversational skills, I know the best response, and what they want more than anything is a stable, steady hand to help them through the process. It’s this sense of practicality that provides the assurance, more than any words of emotional support will in their situations.

All of our clients are so gracious, so casual. The traumatic events they describe to us are so integral to their beings. Our latest was a man who described finding his brother dead on the family farm, covered in plantain leaves after being murdered to send a message, with less of a tinge of dismay in his voice than mine when I complained to a friend about a midterm the day earlier. I have never met a stronger group of people, which is why when some argue it would be weak, or foolish, to think these people are deserving of any innate sense of moral responsibility, it could not be further from the truth. We have a legal system for asylum and immigration in the United States, which is important because while we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws. But those laws need fixing and expansion. These people aren’t taking away any part of the pie of success in society, they are contributing to it – working and volunteering as they wait to hear the decisions on their asylum appeals, just as they will in the future - boosting our overall economy and the vibrancies of communities.

These people cannot afford to be so emotional. Our first client would occasionally tear up. It wasn’t until months into our first case that our client told me that in addition to fleeing political persecution, her husband was abusing her. It was when she heard the judge’s decision that she had been officially granted asylum that she burst into tears. This woman sacrificed everything to be able to freely express herself and participate politically. I’ve skipped College Democrats meetings for assignments I’ve procrastinating on, because I’m privileged enough to be in an environment where for four years I can study what I want, and one of my biggest concerns is keeping up my GPA. I can’t forget that this environment also grants me the ability to be politically active as a woman and not fear physical attacks.

To provide some background: if a refugee applies for asylum in the United States (and to ultimately be on the path to citizenship) and makes it through a series of background checks, he or she is granted an interview with an officer from the Department of Homeland Security. This officer then makes the decision of whether or not to grant them asylum on the spot. If the refugee is denied, he or she is given the right to appeal the decision in front of a federal judge in U.S. Immigration Court (the nearest one is located in Hartford). This is where we come in – arguing the side of the refugee, against a government lawyer arguing they should be deported.

It is troubling to me to think that the Department of Homeland Security denied the refugees that we are helping their initial applications for asylum. It is troubling to think of how many refugees fall through the cracks in the appeals phase. Refugees may be unable to find legal counsel, struggle to find certain documents from their home country, or have had a judge on a bad day.

For all of the frustration over the complexity of the system, the principle holds true that one person really can make a difference. It is such a troubling paradox, and holds true with many issues in legal aid: there may be a lot of red tape, however if one takes the time to really sit down and try to understand one person’s case within it, they will be able to help. Yet exploitation remains. Our latest client told us that a private lawyer consulted with him and said that he would have to pay $5,000 for her to take his case – which is ridiculous and sickening, considering it is work I can do as an undergraduate, meeting for an hour or two every few weeks.

There are many great organizations in Connecticut that offer help for refugees. All three of our clients came to us because they found some form of help along the way in their community, whether a religious group or refugee advocacy organization. UConn Law students and professors are active as well. Improving access to legal representation for refugees is critical – but in the greater scope of immigration and asylum reform it is simply not sustainable or sufficient.  

We can do better.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.