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Introduction: Rory Smith and Kay Maldonado

From the moment we walked into Catholic Charities Legal Services, we could tell there was so much to be done. Not because the attorneys were not doing their part or because the organization wasn’t doing enough, but because there weren’t enough resources for the thousands of immigrants crossing the U.S. border daily.

Yet, in the midst of all the chaos, we met Joseph Kano, who we came to know as Joe. He taught us everything, from basic legal terminology to how to work directly with clients. After meeting Joe, we knew that CCLS was different. Attorneys were handing us assignments like we had years of experience. Joe even taught us how to complete an asylum application. From the first came the second, and eventually we continued to fill out asylum applications, each time making them better and better.

Asylum is a form of protection that allows immigrants to remain in the United States instead of returning to a country where they fear harm or persecution. Applicants can base their asylum applications on one or more of six reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group, and torture convention.

As the number of immigrants in deportation hearings increases, the demand for attorneys to represent asylum seekers exceeds its supply. At CCLS, we worked to assist with as many “Pro Se” asylum applications as possible. In other words, we helped more than 25 clients navigate the first step of the asylum process. We spoke with them, often in Spanish, about their reasons for seeking asylum, and mailed applications on their behalf. However, the attorneys at CCLS lacked the capacity to represent these applicants in court. 180 days after applying for asylum, clients are able to apply for work authorization. In the best case scenario, completing a Pro Se would allow each client time to save money and hire an attorney to represent them. We completed Pro Se’s in the office, at Notre Dame Catholic Church, Camillus House, and Lotus House – Women’s Shelter. Each applicant taught us valuable, indelible lessons. But due to the nature of a Pro Se, we will never know whether each individual is granted asylum. What remains is twofold: the striking stories each applicant told us, and the lessons behind each story offered knowledge we treasured and appreciated. Though this might have just been a story to us, it was and is their life.

Internal Thoughts on Asylum: Rory Smith

When Joe Kano first asked me to fill out a Pro Se asylum application, I stopped in my tracks. My heart thumped with an all-too-familiar feeling: imposter syndrome.

I’ve been passing as an okay Spanish speaker, but a pro se? No way I’ll be able to understand, empathize with, and interpret a client’s immigration story. My knowledge of the Spanish language, let alone the relevant social-political context of Latin American countries is too narrow to deserve this responsibility… he must’ve made a mistake. What if my vocabulary fails me? What if the client breaks down? What if I make a mistake, and the client is forced to stand by my erroneous interpretation that doesn’t align with their lived experiences?

I was no match for my runaway imagination. Regardless, I pushed these thoughts aside and, albeit reluctantly, told Joe I’d be happy to try a Pro Se. DukeEngage had taught me never to say no to a learning experience, and my enthusiasm for face-to-face client interaction took the front seat. Step aside, imposter syndrome.

Saying yes in that moment was hands-down the best decision I made throughout the 8 weeks I worked for Catholic Legal Services. At first, I stumbled on my words and forgot how to say Spanish phrases that I’d learned years ago. With the support of attorneys well-versed in these interviews, the process became more comfortable each time. After I got over my own insecurity, I began to appreciate how much there was to learn from each client. The vast majority of clients were talkative, hopeful, and willing to share as much as they could to make a strong case.

With each interaction, I learned something new about the immigration process from the point of view of immigrants themselves. Yet as I came home each day, my thoughts dwelled on the unjust, frustrating aspects of asylum-seeking. We’d learned a few weeks earlier that only 11% of applications are approved. For some, the asylum process can take several years from start to finish. What I considered a “strong” case for asylum, experienced attorneys deemed weak, simply because the standards for granting asylum remain high, and criteria incredibly narrow.

At the conclusion of Duke Engage, my relationship to the asylum process cuts both ways. As I attached clients’ passport photos and sent their applications off, my perspective on what it means to be an immigrant grew exponentially. Clients exemplified their unwavering strength, positivity, and faith; likewise, I found myself becoming more hopeful and passionate about each one. Yet remaining optimistic in the face of these statistics was an incredible challenge. Clients had poured their hearts out to me, speaking of the unfathomable danger, injustice, and trauma they’d faced to get here. But I’d be naive to think that their adversity didn’t have ongoing effects. Or that their struggles were simply a thing of the past.

Amidst my mixed feelings, there’s one thing I can say with confidence. Despite policy challenges and discouraging data, the attorneys I met this summer sustain hope, passion, and motivation for each of the hundreds of cases they tackle. I left work each day inspired by them, and inspired by every new immigrant I met. Thanks to CCLS, I’d come face to face with the power of advocacy: on individual lives, on systems, and on the world itself.