Breaking New Ground: Pro Se Asylum Approvals
By Melissa Stratton, Pro Bono Coordinator and Sarah Torres, Managing Attorney
In September, Opening Doors received an exciting call: a client who participated in one of our pro se asylum clinics for Afghan evacuees was granted asylum. Since July 2022, we have hosted 15 pro se asylum clinics, and this was the first decision we received from a clinic participant. It was the first of many, with four more families notifying us of their approvals since September.
When thousands of Afghan evacuees arrived in Sacramento after fleeing the Taliban takeover in August 2021, legal services organizations like Opening Doors struggled to meet everyone’s immigration legal needs. Most of our new Afghan neighbors arrived with only temporary humanitarian parole status. They would need to apply for permanent legal status, such as asylum, to live securely in the United States. Opening Doors alone had more than 1,000 Afghans needing legal assistance. Fully representing them in asylum cases would require nearly 30 attorneys; Opening Doors had three.
Only through collaboration and innovation did the impossible become possible. Opening Doors joined forces with four other organizations in the Sacramento region to form the Sacramento Coalition for Afghan Legal Empowerment (SCALE). Together, we hosted pro se asylum clinics, where Afghan asylum seekers were paired with attorneys and trained volunteers to complete their asylum applications. We also provided detailed information about the next steps in the process, including virtual workshops to prepare for the asylum interviews.
The clinic model allowed up to 16 families to be served in one day, making it possible for Opening Doors and other free legal service providers in Sacramento to serve more Afghan families than could be done with direct representation. But this streamlined approach also posed risks: what if these cases were not approved?
Our clients’ recent asylum approvals demonstrate that the clinic model is possible.
Opening Doors and SCALE have since expanded our clinics to other types of applications such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Re-Parole, and Adjustment of Status. We also incorporated additional organizations and community volunteers. Pro bono attorneys from the law firm Hanson Bridgett have staffed three of our pro se clinics, and community volunteers have provided administrative support to ensure the clinics run smoothly.
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of our partner organizations and our community of welcome, many of our new Afghan neighbors now have the stability they need to achieve the self-sufficiency and belonging that they deserve.