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Elon clinic aims to help refugees and asylees stay here

By DIANA SMITH, Staff Writer

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This year, more than 2,700 refugees arrived in North Carolina seeking a new start in life. On New Year’s Day, those in the Triad will find a new agency to help them do it.

The Elon University School of Law has established the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, which will provide free legal services to refugees and those seeking asylum in the state. Its doors open Jan. 1.

According to Greensboro immigration attorney Gerard Chapman, the timing for the clinic’s opening couldn’t be better.

Earlier this year, the Greensboro branch of Lutheran Family Services closed, citing financial difficulties. It was the only refugee-resettlement agency out of four in the Triad that had a legal services department and had been open in Greensboro for 31 years.

“We were all kind of in shock,” Chapman said. “It could have been a disaster, and fortunately there was a large group of people who got together and wouldn’t let that happen.”

Enter Elon. As one of North Carolina’s newer law schools, officials were already looking for ways to grow its clinical programs, said Helen Grant, the immigration clinic’s director. 

That, coupled with the “sudden services vacuum” left by the closure of LFS, made the creation of the immigration law clinic a natural fit for the community, added Heather Scavone, the clinic’s practitioner-in-residence and a former LFS attorney.

Students will be helping refugees and asylees with legal issues that vary in complexity. Some might be relatively straightforward tasks like applying for green cards.

But others are more life-and-death legal matters, such as helping clients who fled their home countries apply for asylum and reunite with their families, some of whom have been
separated for decades.

“Some of their stories are so compelling; Oprah couldn’t come up with better material,” Scavone said.

She cited the example of a Liberian mother who was separated from her three children after rebels attacked her refugee camp on the Ivory Coast. She fled to the U.S. It took 15 years for entire family to reunite, which occurred in Greensboro earlier this year.

Here’s the process: As refugees and asylees enter the U.S., the State Department allocates cases to large nonprofit “voluntary” agencies, or Volags. Those organizations, in turn, assign cases to small refugee nonprofits in each state.

Without LFS, the number of immigrant agencies in the Triad has dropped to three – World Relief of High Point, Church World Service of Greensboro and the N.C. African Services Coalition of Greensboro.   

It is possible for those agencies to receive accreditation required to provide some legal services. Right now, World Relief has one accredited representative, according Board of Immigration Appeals records. Church World Service is working to attain that credential, said Sarah Ivory, its refugee and immigration program director.

Meanwhile, the Elon clinic will be the main resource for immigrants with legal problems. Grant estimates that Scavone, a paralegal and eight 2Ls and 3Ls will serve 500-600 clients initially. The number of students will eventually expand to 12.


 Humanitarian representation

Interviewing techniques will be particularly emphasized in the clinic because students will work with some clients who are “highly traumatized” and may have fled their countries because of religious or political persecution, Scavone said.

Refugees and asylees have come to Guilford County from high-conflict nations such as Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Bhutan, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and the Republic of Congo.

Scavone explained that makes the intake instruction particularly important because “you don’t typically have mental health counseling training as a law student, or even as a practicing attorney.”

 Added Grant, the clinic director: “It’s really important, too, the exposure that our students will get to individuals who are not only from a different culture, but have also been in these extremely tragic humanitarian situations that you could not even imagine. That is a great learning curve for our students, beyond books.”

Basic legal work won’t be absent at the clinic, either. For example, students will assist elderly refugees and asylees fulfill citizenship requirements – a process that’s not always simple.

That’s because refugees’ primary source of income comes from the federal Supplementary Security Income program. To keep receiving SSI, the law requires refugees and asylees to become citizens within seven years after their arrival in the U.S.

The problem, however, is that many immigrants don’t have the formal education or cognitive abilities to learn English and the subject matter tested on the civics and history parts of the citizenship exam, Scavone said.

For these clients, law students will help immigrants obtain disability waivers to aid in their naturalization.

Even more challenging for students will be the family-reunification cases, which can take years to sort out because of evidentiary deficiencies. 

For example, reuniting a child with a refugee parent requires proof of relationship. But many of the countries that refugees leave no longer have the legal infrastructure to provide access to documentation, if there ever was any.  

That means students will have to get creative.    

“They will get to write persuasive arguments in favor of reunification with very little documentation, so it’s a great argumentary exercise,” Scavone explained. 

Chapman predicts the biggest challenge the clinic will face in its first year will be handling the demand he sees as more indigent refugees pour into the state.

“The demand for services will probably outstrip their ability to supply those services … and I think Greensboro is scheduled to receive at least 400 immigrants next year. That doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but believe me, with the kind of issues they’ll bring with them, it’s a lot.”

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