Pictured: The story of immigration attorney Judy Wood is told in Saint Judy, starring Michelle Monaghan. Wood will speak at the Asylum Advocacy Conference on Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Ventura College of Law, and the film will be shown.
by Kimberly Rivers
Right now across Ventura County there are 2,167 active immigration cases for people who are either residing or detained in Ventura County. Of those, 1,557 have legal counsel for their case, leaving 610 people without attorneys while they navigate a complex legal system, often arguing against attorneys for the U.S. government, which is never without counsel. (University of Syracuse TRAC tool. Data from records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. https://trac.syr.edu/)
Attorneys and others in Ventura who seek to bring more fairness to the immigration system are hoping to improve accessibility to legal counsel for immigrants seeking asylum by holding an Asylum Advocacy Conference on Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Ventura College of Law.
Any person from another country who is already in the United States or who arrives on U.S. soil, has the legal right to apply for asylum. (Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 208/US CODE 1158, 1225.) The law doesn’t distinguish how the person got to the United States.
“The law distinguishes an asylee, someone applying for protected status while already present in the USA, from a refugee, someone outside the USA who seeks to enter to gain such protection,” explained Vanessa Frank, a Ventura-based attorney, specializing in immigration law. She is hosting a workshop for attorneys and members of the public who want to learn more about helping those filing for asylum.
A complex process
Frank explains that a person has up to a year to file an “affirmative asylum” application when they enter the country. “Defensive asylum is available as a defense in Immigration Court when ICE seeks to remove [deport] a person,” said Frank.
Steps include filing the correct form, providing all the necessary evidence, declarations, evidence of harm or threats of harm, expert reports, psychological evaluations and any criminal records.
“These applications generally take upwards of 100 hours of attorney time to prepare and encompass lots of very detailed and specific information about both the applicant and the situation the applicant is seeking to flee,” said Frank. Of particular importance for the applicant is demonstrating that they are particularly being targeted, “or reasonably fear being targeted on the basis of their membership in a particular social group.”
“Having representation at all is the primary hurdle,” Frank said, explaining that Immigration Court is not criminal court and therefore the government does not have to provide a defense attorney. This is why children sometimes appear in court without counsel. “Furthermore, the massive amount of evidence, compilation of such evidence and presentation in a coherent and compelling way (in English) is rather difficult for most folks who have only just arrived in the USA.”
Frank said the “vast majority of people who qualify for asylum struggle to gather and present the mountains of evidence required to meet the standards of the U.S. Asylum office,” pointing to the excessive challenges faced by those who are defending themselves against deportation. “When pursuing asylum defensively, one must comply with the ever-shifting timelines of the Immigration Court.” The asylum seeker must also defend their case against the attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who plays a prosecutorial role.
Frank explained the challenges asylum seekers face: “In a foreign language, against strict timelines and against a hostile, trained government attorney with multiple resources at their disposal, people who have often fled their homes at great risk and only with what they could carry and are now struggling to find housing, food and childcare must present detailed evidence in court in order to win their asylum case. It is asking for a herculean effort of discipline, focus and poise from those most traumatized and under threat of harm and death. It is an inhumane system.”
“At the conference we will be training non-attorneys on the variety of ways they can support such cases, from accompanying people to their ICE check-in appointments to conducting research on country conditions and particular social groups to translating documents,” Frank said of the upcoming event. Attorneys will be introduced to this area of law and encouraged “to take on asylum cases pro bono.”
“We felt our office could open a space for folks to gather, train and share their experiences, information and energy to further build the movement for justice in our community and beyond,” responded Frank about the impetus for the event.
Speakers at the event include Hon. Bruce Einhorn, who served as an immigration judge for 20 years and is the author of existing asylum law. He is currently an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Law School and CEO and executive director of the Asylum Project, a nonprofit organization providing support and services to asylum seekers and victims of torture and human trafficking. Judy Wood is an immigration attorney, whose work with an asylum seeker from Afghanistan has been made into a film called Saint Judy, which will be shown at the conference. Mariana Marroquin works at the L.A.-based TransWellness Center with victims of violence, targeted because of their gender or sexuality. Judy London is a senior attorney at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest nonprofit law firm, where she oversees 300 asylum cases every year.
“We will also have panelists from our local migrant advocacy community to talk about how attorneys and others can get involved in actual, on-the-ground justice work here in our own community,” said Frank. “People care. People are doing this work for justice. This is a great chance for new folks to learn more and get involved.”
The Asylum Advocacy Conference is being organized by the Law Office of Vanessa Frank, and takes place on Saturday, Nov. 2, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. at the Ventura College of Law, 4475 Market St., Ventura. Registration in advance is requested. For more information and to register, visit www.vanessafranklaw.com/asylum-advocacy-conference or contact Vanessa Frank: 805-641-9300, firstname.lastname@example.org