Swapna Reddy &Elizabeth Willis
The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) offers a model for “lawyering in a crisis” by crowdsourcing short-term volunteers to provide rapid legal services to asylum-seeking families. The need is vast: Having traveled as law students to a detention center near the U.S.-Mexico border, ASAP’s co-founders were shocked at the conditions they encountered. The facility housed 2,400 refugee women and children, with just two on-the-ground legal service providers. In response, the organization formed in 2015 with 15 student volunteers, and they won every case forced to go to trial in that detention center. Today, the group has worked with over 500 legal volunteers across the country, successfully representing more than 300 asylum seekers in 28 states. By utilizing experts across the nation, ASAP deploys pro bono hours where they are most effective, while learning from legal innovations in a variety of venues. ASAP also found that connecting refugees to one another can be as important as linking them with lawyers, so they launched a private online community where thousands of formerly detained, asylum-seeking mothers now share critical information through a peer-support network.
ASAP prevents wrongful deportations by connecting refugee families to community support and emergency legal aid. Our clients have traveled thousands of miles and braved dangerous terrain to bring their families to safety. We fight alongside them to keep their families safe from harm, no matter where they are located in the United States, using technology, legal assembly lines, and hundreds of short-term volunteers. And we have built an online community of thousands of otherwise isolated refugee mothers where they can share stories and strategies, ask questions of legal experts, and build community power.
In 2015, we traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to represent Suny, a Honduran mother and refugee who was forced to have her trial while detained with her seven-year-old son. Each year thousands of refugee families are held in immigration detention centers run by private prison companies located far from access to community support and legal aid. Suny was an organizer in the detention center and, after she won her case, rather than celebrate, she urged us to find a way to represent other families like hers—even if we had to do so from afar. That’s how ASAP was born.
The biggest challenge we face is the current administration, which has created a dangerous climate for immigrant families. New policies put many of our clients at greater risk of deportation and terrify entire communities due to high levels of uncertainty. Another challenge is how to balance our desire to take on as many cases as possible with our need to build an organization based on steady, sustainable growth. The scope of the need continues to grow on multiple fronts. ASAP is in touch with over 2,000 refugee mothers who cannot afford lawyers, and this number grows by more than 100 each month.
We have been lucky to be mentored by some of the most creative and dedicated immigration attorneys in the country. In particular, Michael Wishnie, who introduced ASAP’s four co-founders and taught us to be zealous advocates; Elora Mukherjee, who took a risk on us when no one else would and represented all of ASAP’s first clients; Michelle Mendez, who has spent hundreds of hours teaching us how to fight back; and Becca Heller, who showed us how to build an organization from scratch and made us believe it was possible.
Luna fled to the United States with her three-year-old daughter after she received death threats and her siblings were murdered. She hired a man who said he was an attorney and charged her thousands of dollars—but he wasn’t an attorney at all. He prepared nothing, and Luna lost her case. ASAP stepped in as her deportation was imminent. We could not meet her in person. We had little time to prepare. ASAP divided her case into pieces, assigning volunteers around the country to each part. Thankfully, Luna won her case and can now live in safety in the United States.
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