Throughout law school, I have been repeatedly taught that it is the duty of a lawyer to be a zealous advocate for his or her clients. But how does a lawyer teach individuals to be zealous advocates for themselves? This was a question that my advocacy project team in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic encountered in trying to create a guide to teach individuals how to best represent themselves in asylum hearings. Rather than use the skills that we had learned in law school to fight for our clients in the courtroom, Adam Hersh, Jillian Katterhagen Mills, Megan McKoy, and I needed to determine how we could teach those skills to individuals in order to empower and enable them to fight for themselves.
In many different areas of our legal system there exists a disconnect between the people who need representation and lawyers. This access to justice crisis may be most acute within the immigration law system. Despite the fact that an individual in immigration proceedings can be torn apart from her family and placed in detention or eventually deported, individuals have no right to court appointed counsel in immigration proceedings. Many cannot afford to hire a private attorney and the non-profits are at capacity and having to turn away many cases. Furthermore, given the position of President Trump on immigration during his campaign and his first few months in office, it is safe to assume that the number of people in immigration proceedings and facing the threat of potentially permanent banishment from the United States will likely rise.
To help address this crisis, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, on behalf of our community partners the Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) and Centro Legal de la Raza, was charged with creating a pro se guide for asylum seekers. To create the guide, the team needed to answer one question: what does an individual need to know to win an asylum case. However, this seemingly basic question required the team to know (1) who the target audience is, (2) what are the requirements for asylum, (3) what immigration judges expect from pro se litigants, and (4) how to best communicate this information to the target audience.
To answer these questions, we comprehensively researched asylum law to fully understand both its procedural and substantive elements. We also spoke with our community partners, from whom we learned that the target audience is comprised largely of women with children from Central America and Mexico, who are predominantly monolingual Spanish speakers with limited literacy and education, and who have fled their home countries due to domestic violence or gangs and cartel violence. We also participated in some asylum workshops held by our community partner, where we helped asylum seekers complete their asylum applications. We used this time to better understand the asylum process ourselves and to have an opportunity to meet face-to-face with the individuals for whom we were designing the guide. Beyond putting faces to the people that we were trying to help, these interactions gave the team valuable insight into the common concerns and questions that the asylum seekers had about the court process as well as about their rights and obligations. Furthermore, we had the opportunity to observe an individual hearing in an asylum case, as well as speak to an immigration judge about what the bench may often expect from a pro se litigant. Lastly, we researched design and accessibility principles and consulted with Margaret Hagan, the Director of the Legal Design Lab, about how to incorporate the principles of design thinking to our guide to make the information as accessible for the target audience as possible.
Armed with this information, we began to draft the guide. However, gathering the necessary information was in a sense the easy part; next we had to present the information in a way that could be used by any individual seeking asylum. Acutely aware that to make the guide usable the content needed to be brief and clear, we continuously condensed and simplified the guide, removing any hint of legalese. We also asked our fellow colleagues in the clinic to review the guide. We had an opportunity to field test portions of the guide with individuals from the target audience at another community asylum workshop. We then translated the guide into Spanish and worked with a graphic designer to make sure that the guide was visually accessible and incorporated graphics that effectively communicated important information.
Ultimately, the team accomplished something truly unique. We created a usable and interactive guide tailored to the specific needs of individuals with asylum cases in San Francisco Immigration Court. It is the first ever of its kind. Our guide is not a legal manual, but a document that can be used by anyone, with simple language, clear examples, worksheets and charts for individuals to fill out to organize the information in their own cases, and sample forms (such as cover letters and applications). Of course, navigating the asylum process remains a complex and daunting challenge, especially considering that those who must navigate it have fled their country in fear of persecution. However, with this guide, we believe that we can help more individuals have a real chance of finding protection and a better life here in the United States.