Rutgers Law School’s Newark campus hosts a chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), currently consisting of 33 law students. Working with pro bono attorneys and the IRAP staff, Rutgers students not only assist with various policy and special projects, but additionally work in teams to assist refugees through the immigration and resettlement process. Six years ago, IRAP Rutgers was assigned our first case – an Afghan national who had put his life on the line as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the war. Finally, on November 4, 2020, six years and nearly a dozen Rutgers IRAP student volunteers later, IRAP Rutgers’s first client made it to the United States.
The U.S. issues special immigrant visas (SIVs) to Afghan interpreters who have served the U.S. military or government in war. The applicant must first receive Chief of Mission (COM) approval from the Embassy, a long process with extensive documentation. Then, the applicant completes the SIV application process, including medical exams and a visa interview. If the applicant doesn’t have a place to settle in the U.S., the International Organization of Migration (IOM) can arrange flights and a resettlement site in the U.S. Therefore, when our client finally received his visas in fall of 2019, the IRAP Rutgers team was thrilled knowing it was only a matter of months before our client, wife, and son would be here in the U.S.
Yet, the case took a heartbreaking turn this spring. The IOM waited until the visas were about to expire to book their flights – April 2020. When the pandemic struck, the flights were cancelled and their visas expired (check out the story in NPR and Stars and Stripes). We knew the medical exam and visa process would have to be repeated…and we knew we could not wait the next time for IOM. So, we reached out to his former U.S. military boss this summer who coordinated a GoFundMe, raising the funds needed for the family to redo their medical exams and book their flights themselves. We also identified an organization in Houston, Texas called Combined Arms who arranged to meet the family at the airport and get them settled at the YMCA there, an official refugee resettlement agency. As soon as the Embassy reissued the visas this October, our client was able to book the flights and prepare to depart.
In the evening of November 4th, while most Americans held their breath watching the vote count, our team members held our breaths, waiting for news from Houston that our client had arrived. When we received the picture that evening of our client turning the key into his new home in Houston, we celebrated. Six years of hard work all paid off in that moment thanks to the team – dozens of Rutgers student volunteers, our pro bono attorney Brian Biglin at Duane Morris, lawyers on-call in Texas, our client’s former military bosses, the many individuals who donated to the GoFundMe, and the amazing folks at Combined Arms and the YMCA in Houston.
If this experience taught me one thing, it taught me that being a lawyer is way more than assisting a client through legal processes. To ultimately be successful in serving our clients, we must look beyond our legal training, often turning to others, even non-lawyers, to meet the needs of our clients. If our team had just stuck to the logistics of the SIV process even when the process failed our client, he and his family would still be in danger waiting in Kabul. But because we worked collectively to properly serve our client, he never gave up on us and we never gave up on him. We are grateful to IRAP for this opportunity and are hopeful our other cases will have just as successful endings!