Jennifer Ollington's resolve to become a public-interest attorney was strengthened during her summer as a Silbert Public Interest Fellow at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, a non-profit firm that provides free legal services to low-income people. There, her role as legal advocate expanded to providing moral support, including steering clients toward social agencies that could offer further help. Perhaps the most difficult part of her work involved interviewing torture survivors seeking asylum. The following is her first-person account:
I worked at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles as a Silbert Fellow. Public Counsel is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal services to individuals who live below the federal poverty level. I worked with Public Counsel's Immigrants' Rights Project and handled a variety of immigration cases. I was fortunate to work with Public Counsel's knowledgeable immigration attorneys who provided me with diverse and challenging work. The clients with whom I worked directly included, in part, the following: undocumented children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents; immigrants who are torture survivors seeking political asylum; immigrants who are the spouses of abusive United States citizens or legal permanent residents; and immigrants who were the a victim of a crime in the United States. My work at Public Counsel was compelling, rewarding and confirmed my decision to pursue a law career in the public interest legal sector.
Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that an "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. King's theory rang especially true for me this summer as I worked primarily with clients currently seeking asylum from their respective home countries in Africa. I specifically requested to work on asylum cases, as I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees in the past, and I wanted to obtain more experience in this area of immigration law. The United States' Immigration and Nationality Act defines a refugee, or asylum seeker, as a person who is unable to return to their country of origin due to "a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
I find asylum law to be especially compelling because asylum seekers are usually individuals who demonstrate enormous courage and strength in the face of unspeakable conditions. The clients I worked with endured torture in their home country, and were forced to make the decision to leave their family and communities in order to find safety. They traveled to the United States and arrived here for the first time without family members or friends. This is typical of the asylum seeker's experience.
Asylum seekers, therefore, are unlike many other immigrants who come to the United States along with their family members, or have family members and friends already living here to greet and help them to settle. Because they lack the support of family or community and are currently dealing with the trauma associated with being a torture survivor, asylum seekers are especially vulnerable to being marginalized.
These individuals have taught me so much about human's ability to carry on and remain hopeful despite everything. They have also led me to appreciate the relative peace and respect for human rights that are enjoyed in the United States.
I met one of my clients, Agnes, (I am not going to use the client's real name or mention the country of origin because her case is still pending before the Citizenship and Immigration Services) on my first day of work in June. I was assigned to first conduct an intake with her to determine the strength of her asylum claim, and then work with her to develop her story. Agnes is from a country in Central Africa where she was an activist for human rights in her country. She lost custody of her children when she divorced her physically abusive husband of ten years. Women in Agnes's country are considered second-class citizens and are afforded fewer civil rights than men.
I was immediately struck by Agnes's intelligence. She received a university degree in her country before she married her husband, which was a result of an arrangement between her father and her husband's father. In many respects, Agnes has suffered because she is intelligent and well educated. Contrary to the societal norms of her culture, Agnes decided to not only legally challenge the loss of her custodial rights in court, but she also began educating and organizing with other parents who had also lost the custody of their children because of these unfair family laws.
Agnes eventually became a target of a cruel local militia group that is notorious for committing horrific forms of torture upon local communities. On one occasion, Agnes was sexually assaulted in the street by uniformed guards who had watched her appear in court, followed her outside and attacked her. Despite this humiliation, Agnes continued her activism in the community. More recently, she was arrested as she was giving a presentation to parents on how to cope with losing custody of her children. She spent several months in jail where she endured more forms of torture. She eventually escaped the prison and then her country and fled to the United States. She promptly sought legal assistance so she could apply for asylum.
One of the most difficult things for me, as a legal advocate working with torture survivors, is explaining why it is so important that the client tell their story in detail. An U.S. immigration official interviews individuals seeking affirmative asylum two weeks after their asylum application is received by the USCIS. This interview lasts for several hours where the immigration official asks detailed questions about the individual's claim. The immigrant's credibility is often determined by the amount of detail they can recall about their experience of persecution. My role as an advocate was to gain the trust of my client so they could open up and effectively tell their story, while at the same time ask them tough questions to determine the credibility of their claim.
It is only natural for a person to be reluctant to open up to a stranger, sitting in an office, about the most intimate details of their life. During the course of our meetings, I constantly pressed Agnes for more specific details about the events of her persecution, even when she started to frown at me and her eyes welled up with tears. It seemed counter-intuitive to her to provide so much detail to me. In her mind, she knew that she had suffered and she could not understand why anyone would need any more than that from her. Agnes would often shake her head in frustration both at her own memory and my seemingly irrelevant questions. When I would explain to her the importance of gaining as much detail as possible, she would sigh and begin racking her brain for the small details that surrounded the larger details of her torture.
Agnes often expressed a sense of hopelessness to me about the entire asylum process. She told me that she had thoughts of giving up, of returning home, even if it meant that she would be subjected to harm. She also felt, in part, frustrated that she was unable to work because she felt that she was a financial drain on the family she was living with, and she wanted to support herself.
I spent a significant amount of time during our meetings encouraging her about the strength of her asylum claim, the benefits of being legally present in the United States, and the possibility of petitioning for her children to join her here. I also referred her to an organization that provided free mental health services to immigrants who are torture survivors. We also discussed the possibility of Agnes sending a message to her mother through the International Red Cross as she felt it was too dangerous to send a message through her government's postal service, as it may draw attention to her mother.
My role as a legal advocate, therefore, expanded beyond my responsibility to conduct legal research on international human rights conditions and write Agnes's declaration. I also willingly provided moral support and directed her to social services in the community. This holistic approach to client services recognizes that torture survivors not only need legal assistance, but their mental and physical health needs must also be met in order for the healing process to begin.
I extend warm and enormous gratitude towards Harvey and Lillian Silbert for making my summer fellowship possible. Law students who work or volunteer in the public interest sector provide an invaluable service to public interest organizations. This work exposes students to the need for free legal assistance, and provides an extra hand to assist over-worked staff attorneys. The Silberts' contribution to my work was, in turn, a contribution to the disadvantaged communities of Los Angeles.