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W&M Law Students Offer Legal Assistance to Afghan Refugees

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Two law students at the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic working together to translate documents. (Courtesy of Stacy Kern-Scheerer)

WILLIAMSBURG — On August 30, 2021, the U.S. war in Afghanistan officially came to an abrupt end.

On that date, the Pentagon announced, in a briefing held by Four-Star Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, that every single U.S. service member had made it out of Afghanistan.

The decision to finally pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan concludes a historic twenty-year-long chapter in what is known as “the war on terrorism”; a phrase first used by President George W. Bush following the traumatic events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.

The longest war in U.S. history has ended. However, the U.S. military leaving Afghanistan is not the end of the story for the men, women, and families still living in the war-torn country. Many people have risked their lives by taking strong stances against the Taliban over the years and fear repercussions.

Since the U.S. military has left the region, the Taliban has been able to regain significant control of the country. The group has managed to pull off an almost complete takeover of the country within a ten-day time span. This control includes the recapturing of major cities in the country in addition to the largest city, and capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. They have forced the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani to flee the country where he and his family have sought refuge in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE’s government has welcomed the president of Afghanistan and his family on humanitarian grounds.

President Ghani leaving Kabul was a symbolic beginning to the Taliban takeover of the entire country. This takeover by the Taliban has caused tens of thousands of Afghans to flee their homeland in search of a better life.

Refugee agency United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that over half a million Afghans could leave their country by the end of the year. Thousands of Afghans have already appealed to neighboring countries in addition to many other countries around the world.

One of the countries where many Afghans are seeking a better life is in the United States.

Enter the William & Mary Law Clinic

Two Immigration Clinic students with the Clinic Director Stacy Kern-Scheerer (right) with the Clinic’s first Immigration Court filing in 2019. (Courtesy of Stacy Kern-Scheerer)

Stacy Kern-Sheerer is an attorney with a passion for helping others. In 2019, she helped start up the Immigration Law Clinic at William & Mary (W&M). Since then, she has made it her mission to inspire her students to use their legal knowledge to give back to those in need.

“When you see a crisis unfolding, whether that be at the southern border, whether that be down the street, or across the world, you think, ‘How am I equipped to help? What can I bring to this situation to try to use my skills to make a difference?’ I thought, ‘I’m a lawyer, I have a law degree, I’ve always been public service-minded,” said Kern-Scheerer in an interview with WYDaily. “I’ve been teaching at the law school for several years and I have a commitment to helping students see what their law degree can really do in the world. I have found that law students are very generous and open and willing to dive into problems when they see people who are further along in their careers doing something.”

The W&M’s Immigration Law Clinic is one of nine legal clinics offered at the school. Every semester, the clinic has between eight to twelve law students working on immigration cases with clients from all over the world. Recently, the students have been offering their legal assistance to those who are attempting to leave Afghanistan.

One of those students is Emilee Houghton, a third year law (3L) student at William & Mary Law School. Houghton works with Kern-Scheerer on humanitarian parole applications for people who are trying to come to the U.S.

“Basically, what humanitarian parole is, is it gets people over here. Then once they’re here, they can figure out what they can apply for next,” said Houghton. “These people are going through really hard situations but it’s nice to get to work with people from an area of the world that I spend a lot of time studying.”

Houghton majored in international studies and learned Arabic during her undergraduate years. She has been tasked with translating into Arabic the materials that are on the clinic’s website.

“So if people do need assistance, and if they are unable to read the materials on our website, they have a resource,” Houghton said. “It’s difficult because it is so current and because the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating so quickly. It is hard to think about what these people are going through. You want so bad to get them here and get them to safety.”

The Immigration Clinic team of Spring 2021 with their prepared submission to the Immigration Court. (Courtesy of Stacy Kern-Scheerer)

Kern-Scheerer says the main focus of the clinic is to provide immigration legal services in a humanitarian context. The clinic has been offering humanitarian parole assistance for Afghan refugees ever since the crisis in Afghanistan started in August.

The immigration clinic has a network of organizations that it communicates with to help find clients who seek legal assistance. Most of these organizations are based in Virginia, like Hampton Roads Refugee Relief (HR3), Common Wealth Catholic Charities, and International Rescue Committee.

“The William & Mary Immigration Clinic is very cooperative with assisting HR3 with providing free services to our clients [refugees] in filling applications for Humanitarian Parole for Afghans and refugee sponsorship application for refugee family members,” said Operations Manager for HR3 Saif Ahmadzi.

Additionally, cases have come from other places such as domestic violence shelters, legal aid, faith communities, and hospitals. All these organizations have been known to contact the immigration clinic with knowledge of individuals or families who require the legal services provided by the immigration clinic.

The Emotional Toll

“All the types of cases we work on involve situations where individuals and families are coming to us because frankly, terrible things have happened. It is really baked into our curriculum to be very open and forward in talking about what trauma-informed presentation is,” said Kern-Scheerer. “If we try to pretend that our work doesn’t impact us, I think that is basically an expressway to burnout and to really becoming resentful of your work. This is hard. This is emotionally difficult, you have to be able to think about what you’re doing and process it and not try to just shove down the human side of who you are as a lawyer. So because we do talk about it and we are open about the impact of the work, I think it makes it a lot easier. I don’t ask students to put on battle armor and pretend as though nothing bothers them. I think that to me is way more damaging than saying, ‘Yeah, we are seeing individuals and families who have seen things that frankly, I can’t imagine.’ So we talk about ‘How can I use my skills and abilities to really help them?’ I think that helps the students say ‘I can use my experience and law degree to really respond to a moment of crisis and I can do something about it within the world that I know and that I have been trained for.”

W&M Law School Immigration Clinic Director Stacy Kern-Scheerer (right)and IJC Fellow Nicole Alanko, J.D. ’18 (left) arriving at Fort Lee in August 2021 to assist Afghans with their green card applications. (Courtesy of Stacy Kern-Scheerer)

Yvonne He, a 3L student at William & Mary Law School, is another student who has been using her education to help clients at the clinic. She brings with her a unique perspective of having an international background. Yvonne has been going through law school with English as her second language; her first being Mandarin.

Yvonne describes the work as rewarding, and she explains how she is typically involved in every phase of the legal procedure. The 3L student has experience with helping clients fill out their application forms, conducting interviews with clients, and assisting clients with drafting declarations in support of their applications.

“I am a very emotional person. Immigration law is going to be my side interest but I probably will not take that as my future career area just because it’s so dark, so heavy, and there are so many emotions and breathtaking moments,” said Yvonne. “With immigration law, I was thinking because of my international background I can relate to my clients more in that sense. After I actually learned their cases I started realizing that they’re suffering much much more than I could ever understand. I probably could never relate to what they are experiencing and that is very overwhelming to me. Sometimes it shows up in my dreams. What they suffered and what they said. It keeps me up at night just because I cannot help them get past this fast enough. That is very difficult, and I understand that Stacy and our supervising attorneys have much more of those moments.”

The clients have come in contact with the immigration clinic from all over the world; Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Kern-Scheerer said, “[U]nfortunately one thing that unites them is that most of them are survivors of some type of trauma and violence. Sometimes that violence and trauma happens in their home country. Sometimes that violence and trauma happens in the United States. Sometimes, it even happens in both places.”

People who are already in the U.S. typically have their special immigration visa process approved, or it is in progress. Sometimes they are able to come to the country on humanitarian parole or they were lucky enough to get out during the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan.

This group of people has only a certain time period to figure out what is going to be their permanent immigration pathway to the U.S. This sometimes comes from a family member that could petition for them. Some of them may claim asylum, which is what the immigration clinic suspects a lot of people do. It’s also possible to get a permanent pathway through employment. The immigration clinic is positioned to help people who are here claim asylum because if they were going to be deported back to Afghanistan, they could potentially be persecuted based on who they are.

“Then, you have the second universe of folks who are still in Afghanistan and they are trying to get out,” said Kern-Scheerer. “So we are working with individuals who are still there to help them apply for humanitarian parole, to help them be able to enter the united states.”

A major roadblock involved in the whole parole application process is that it’s very hard to leave Afghanistan right now. Afghans that are wanting to leave their country are still trapped there. Even if a client happens to get their humanitarian parole application approved, they still have to find a way out of Afghanistan.

“You still have to find a way to get out of the country physically to be able to sort of finish with the humanitarian parole application process. This is where it can be really difficult for the students,” said Kern-Scheerer. “We can put together the most solid, perfect, application that anyone has ever done before, but there is still the back log in the system because there are many other people doing the same thing. At the end of the day, the Taliban has to let you get out. A difficult thing from an advocate’s perspective is feeling a little bit helpless to not be able to kind of extract somebody from Afghanistan. For those who are still trapped there. They are very scared, and there are families in the United States who are trying to help get them here.” 

What Happens Next?

 Immigration Clinic students with the Clinic’s Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow Nicole Alanko, Esq. with their filing prepared for submission to Immigration Court (October 2021). (Courtesy of Stacy Kern-Scheerer)

There are nine resettlement agencies in the U.S. that assist individuals who are able to come over to the U.S. If people are able to make it to this country from places like Afghanistan then these agencies are the ones who help with the next step of relocation. The resettlement agencies will help individuals and families resettle to different parts of the country. These agencies make the determination of where the refugees go.

Many of the law students working on these cases will not see whether their efforts succeed or not. The legal process can take up to eight years. Sometimes maybe more than eight years.

Houghton says that’s just a factor you have to keep in mind before you join the immigration clinic as a law student.

“I think going into the immigration clinic you have to recognize that you probably won’t see the end of these cases because they take so long, but the students in the clinic do such a great job of passing on the torch when they’re finished. They leave you everything you need to know and Professor Kern-Scheerer is so knowledgeable,” said Houghton. “You get to know them more as people and not just clients. You learn about their kids and their family, and where they’re from. I think it’s frustrating that it’s a really long process but at the same time I guess it’s rewarding to know them as the person that you’re helping when you’re done.”

Students like Houghton and Yvonne have been heavily involved with the immigration clinic. While they both admit the work is emotional and tough, they also say that it is very rewarding. For students like Houghton, they plan on making immigration law their main area of law when they graduate from W&M. Most students, however, are more like Yvonne, who plan to take on pro bono immigration cases if the opportunity presents itself at their future law firms.

“Since I’m not graduating yet, and I’m planning to still work on the clinic next semester, I probably cannot exactly feel my feelings that I would have at that time, but I imagine that it’s going to be kind of hard to put this aside and write a transition memo to let the next person know what is going on and what has been done,” said Yvonne. “I think it’s probably going to be harder for my client rather than me myself. For me, it’s a phase of my legal education but for them, this is their life. It’s just one student after another and their case is still in process. So that’s one thing I’m concerned about, that’s also why our clinic doesn’t really introduce the students until we actually have to communicate with them. So they don’t have to deal with too many students if they don’t have to.”

Kern-Scheerer says that “We are here for the long haul. I think that that’s what we want our partners to understand. Once the headlines are over and once this fades from public consciousness there are still going to be people who try to figure out their immigration situation and those are the people we’ll still be here for.”

The W&M Immigration Clinic also does work with U-Visas, Citizenship, and naturalization. For more information on the legal services they provide you can visit the clinic’s online blog.

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