Opinion

US must honor its commitment to Iraqi and other refugees

US asylum seekers and immigrants are allowed access to legal counsel, but refugees are not. Allowing legal advocates to assist refugees would improve the refugee resettlement process immediately and tangibly – for both refugees and US officials.

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    Iraqi refugee Ali Jassim Mohammad at his brother's home in Baghdad. He lost his leg three days after he came back to get documents to maintain his refugee status in Sweden.
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By the time Mohammed* sat down in front of a US government official in 2008, he had lived through war, escaped persecution, and survived a brutal kidnapping. But he didn’t know the many challenges that lay ahead.

Mohammed is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria with his wife and four children. Seeking a more stable home in the United States, he began the application process for resettlement three years ago. Mohammed tried his best to prepare his case, diligently collecting photographs of the injuries he sustained in Iraq and readying himself to discuss the persecution he had faced. Yet his interview with the US government caught him off guard.

Since his kidnapping, Mohammed has had trouble remembering dates and small details. When asked to recall a date during his interview, he turned to his wife to help jog his memory. The interviewer immediately ordered her out of the room. Distressed, Mohammed couldn’t answer many of the interviewer’s questions. Months later, he received a single-page letter in a language he could not read with a checked box indicating he had been denied resettlement for “credibility reasons.”

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Unfortunately, Mohammed’s case is not exceptional. Refugees applying for resettlement to the United States face an unknown and complicated legal system. Applications are written in English, the legal standards are entirely foreign, and important documentation may be missing or difficult to obtain for refugees who have fled their countries. Desperate for information, many applicants rely on rumors or advice from other refugees to help them prepare their applications. The complexities of this process have postponed, and often denied, many refugees like Mohammed the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. They instead remain living in unstable situations – as Mohammed is, in Syria.

The denial of a right to counsel lies at the source of many of these problems. The US does not fully recognize the right of refugees to have counsel represent them. Some government agencies refuse to communicate with counsel at all, and all agencies bar counsel from attending interviews. Without legal guidance, many worthy applicants are rejected.

The assistance of legal advocates would improve the refugee resettlement process immediately and tangibly – for both refugees and US officials. A legal advocate could orient applicants to the resettlement process, advise them of the expected timeline, aid them in obtaining proper documentation, and prepare them to answer sensitive questions during interviews. Counsel could also attend interviews to ensure that interviewers follow fair procedure.

Allowing refugees access to counsel would also save the government time and money. Currently, US officials must explain the resettlement process to refugees, inform applicants when they haven’t supplied proper documentation, and respond to numerous case-status requests. An advocate would help applicants collect documents and submit them in an organized way, present the refugee’s claim more coherently, ensure refugees are prepared for interviews, and streamline follow-up requests.

Remarkably, it seems that about half of rejected applicants who request reconsideration are later accepted. This duplicative work – and the refugee’s anguish during the months or years it takes to rectify the error – could be avoided by improving the system’s ability to admit deserving applicants in the first place. Overall, the process would be more efficient and more just if refugees had access to counsel.

This is a lesson the US learned years ago in other immigration settings. Asylum applicants and aliens in deportation hearings are already allowed legal counsel, and the government provides them with a list of legal organizations that work on a pro bono basis. The only distinction between an asylee and a refugee is whether the person has set foot on US soil. Why should we provide this legal protection to one group and not the other?

Like counsel for asylees, these advocates would not work at US government expense. Instead, legal aid offices and nonprofit immigration law organizations, as well as private law firms, could extend their services to applicants for refugee resettlement. For example, our organization, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, works with 19 law school chapters across the United States and one at the University of Jordan to help refugees prepare and submit appeals of resettlement rejections. IRAP is well suited to begin representing clients during the initial stages of the resettlement application process as well – as soon as a refugee’s right to counsel is recognized.

Had Mohammed been allowed access to counsel when he began the resettlement application process three years ago, he might today be adapting to his new home in the US. Instead, waiting in limbo in Syria, he has been unable to benefit from a resettlement system designed to provide shelter for individuals – just like him – who have survived persecution and humanitarian crises.

The US has a special duty to refugees like Mohammed who cannot return home because of the Iraq war. But the United States has long been a place of refuge for those from all over the world who flee persecution. In order to fulfill this proud national commitment, the Departments of State and Homeland Security should recognize a refugee’s right to counsel at all stages of the resettlement process. Only then will our refugee program truly live up to its intentions.

*Name has been changed to respect client’s privacy.

Michelle Mangan and Dana Montalto are second-year students at Yale Law School. Both have represented Iraqi refugees as part of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

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