Law students on Long Island are reaching across the globe to help civilian interpreters, who may become the target of violent extremists because they worked with Americans in Afghanistan, to make it to the safety of the United States under special visa programs.
The students at Touro Law Center in Central Islip formed the first Long Island chapter of the nonprofit Iraqi Refuge Assistance Project, an effort with volunteers at 27 law schools that has helped resettle more than 2,000 refugees in war-torn countries that include Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.
Students initiated the local chapter in the fall after attending a conference where they learned that many Iraqis and Afghans remained in danger because they assisted U.S. troops, officials and contractors.
"It's about giving hope to innocent people who happened to be born in another country where there is conflict," said chapter co-director Breanna McIntyre, 26, a second-year law student from Mattituck.
Congress authorized two visa programs to help its collaborators in Iraq and Afghanistan, but applicants were largely left to file paperwork and follow up on petitions on their own.
That's where the law students come in, offering free legal advice while earning experience with real cases.
"This is a program that can help Afghanis and Iraqis who have helped us and who have been our ears and our eyes in many moments of crisis," said chapter co-director Erick Marroquin, 27, of Jamaica, Queens, a third-year law student. "Now that we are leaving the Middle East we shouldn't just leave them all behind."
The Long Island students have divided into teams of three, each with a faculty adviser, to track the cases of three men who served as interpreters and have pending visa requests.
Their applicants have filed under the Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa programs, managed by the U.S. Department of State. Once granted, those visas give refugees and immediate relatives the opportunity to work and attend school in the United States, qualifying for legal permanent residency after a year and becoming eligible to apply for citizenship after five years.
Overall, 7,000 Afghans and more than 15,000 Iraqis have come to the United States under the programs since 2007, according to the State Department's consular affairs office.
The applicants whom the students are helping won't necessarily come to Long Island, but would be resettled in areas where they can find housing and work. Many refugees who have come to New York are in upstate areas.
Becca Heller, director of the Manhattan-based national organization known as IRAP, said the group has staff in the Middle East who look for worthy applicants so students can aid them in a process "that is fair, that respects due process of law and the dignity and rights of the refugee applicants."
Three of those students on the Island rose early one day last week to make a 7 a.m. Skype call with their client, connecting from a conference room in Central Islip to an Internet café in Herat, Afghanistan.
They spoke to a 21-year-old man, who goes by "Sam" for his American friends and did not disclose his legal name because of security concerns. He is a Pashtun-speaking Afghan who has worked as a linguist for the U.S. government for years. He said he has accompanied American troops on combat missions and has translated for U.S. officials appearing on television.
Sam said that he fears for his life and lives in hiding with relatives, who also worked for U.S. agencies, but sometimes people recognize him from his work alongside officials.
"I feel danger here," Sam said. "They say if you work with the Americans you become an infidel, you are not a good guy and you don't like your country . . . so sometimes they threaten you directly, sometimes indirectly."
Stefan Williams, a first-year law student who lives in Central Islip, said the project allows him to work with a real client while advocating for something in which he believes.
Williams, 22, said the visa "is something they are entitled to under U.S. law" but also morally, after putting their lives at risk.
"The United States of America is built on the premise of immigrants coming here and building a nation," Williams said.
The enterprise was welcomed by school officials, who consider it a valuable learning opportunity.
Because of what is at stake, "they are really understanding in a way they never would in a classroom what it means to be an attorney," said Myra Berman, a Touro associate dean advising the group. "This is really the epitome of pro-bono service on a global scale."
As for Sam, he has been preparing for his life in the United States, where he would like to go to college to study business management or economics. He watches "a lot of American movies at night" and has been perfecting his English pronunciation by listening to speeches by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
He said he first learned of McCain when he was given one of the senator's speeches to study for English class. He "became fond of him" and went looking for more on YouTube, "so I listen, listen, listen."
Keetick Sanchez, 31, a first-year law student from Jackson Heights, Queens, who said she joined the project because she is interested in immigration law, had reassuring words for Sam during the call.
"We are going to keep working on your case," she told him, "until you are here in the United States with us."