The Hofstra law school Asylum Clinic works to help immigrants...

The Hofstra law school Asylum Clinic works to help immigrants on Long Island through what is often a difficult process. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Ferida Osman, a third-year law student at Hofstra, said the hostility she faced as the child of refugees from Afghanistan on Long Island led her to pursue a career in immigration law. Osman, who is Muslim and grew up in Huntington Station, recalled losing friends after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States — and experiencing other hostilities while in school. 

Those experiences helped shape her work at Hofstra's Maurice A. Deane School of Law Asylum Clinic in Hempstead, where she learned the importance of building trust with clients who seek to stay in the United States. Those clients often faced torturous conditions abroad, said Osman, who will continue with the clinic this coming fall semester through independent study. She recalled rewriting statements to the court so that her clients' voices would shine, while keeping them abreast of developments in their cases.

"It's not just about winning the case," said Osman, 29. "It's about making sure that that person feels like a person again."

Run under the guidance of Hofstra law professor Lauris Wren, the asylum clinic immerses a handful of students in immigration law while they, in turn, help represent those trying to legally stay in this country after fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, opinion or social group, the school said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Hofstra Law School Asylum Clinic in Hempstead is among several nonprofits on Long Island helping a growing number of asylum-seekers.
  • Asylum-seekers typically have trauma and little money for housing and necessities — let alone for legal counsel to guide them through a complex immigration case that might lead to their deportation.
  • Having sound legal services is often critical for asylum-seekers to stay in the country legally, lawyers say.

The students represent clients under the supervision of Wren, the attorney-in-charge of the clinic, the university said. Wren is the only attorney for the asylum clinic.

Professor Lauris Wren, center, runs the Hofstra Law School Asylum Clinic,...

Professor Lauris Wren, center, runs the Hofstra Law School Asylum Clinic, where she has worked with law student Ferida Osman, left, and law graduate Jamin Enquist, right. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Asylum-seekers typically have trauma and little money for housing and other necessities — let alone for legal counsel to guide them through a complex immigration case that might otherwise lead to deportation. Those concerns are being played out in full view in New York City, as more than 100,000 migrants have arrived since the spring, many of them coming through the southern border and some of them bused to the city by Republican governors of states like Texas in protest of the Biden administration's policies. In the city, many of them live in shelters, while some have slept on midtown streets.

Hofstra clinic leader: A chance to 'save someone's life'

At the clinic, an intake process screens potential clients, said Wren, a clinical professor of law, director of clinical programs and director of LGBT+ fellowship at Hofstra. The clinic then works with the chosen ones through what can be a yearslong process, while also referring them to social services from other nonprofits when needed. 

And, thus far, it has worked: The clinic, which was started in 2003, has won 100% of its asylum cases, according to Wren. It currently has 45 open cases, though it has handled hundreds. After clients get asylum, the clinic represents them on naturalization and other applications, of which the clinic usually has about 40 cases pending.

By comparison, more than 60% of all asylum cases heard in immigration courts in New York were granted, according to more than two decades' worth of data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

"We look for cases that we believe deserve asylum, but have problems in them," Wren said from an office filled with pictures of clients served by the clinic, artwork from students and other items. "So, we want to find cases that we think will probably lose without us but may win with us." 

Typically, third-year law students meet with clients, sometimes multiple times a week, and handle three to four asylum cases as a team. They draft affidavits, go to the local asylum office, do the direct examination in courts and deliver arguments to the judge. 

The clients they represent come from around the world, with many from Latin America. About half the clinic's cases are affirmative asylum — people who entered the country illegally, were not apprehended and who seek asylum. Those cases can go to the asylum office in Bethpage, which is under the purview of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

The clinic also represents defensive asylum cases, which go to immigration court and usually are people apprehended at the border before coming to New York. If a person seeking asylum is paroled into the United States or released from detention, the venue for the case can be moved to New York if the person is moving to the state.

Many of the students are the children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves, Wren said, and can utilize their life experience to help those facing a humanitarian crisis. It's a "full cycle view of life for them," she said. And in working through this process, according to Wren, students witness how asylum-seekers maintain their belief in the notion that "people are good and I can start over and it will be better."

The students, she said, can "save someone's life."

'My life was in real danger' 

One of those people the clinic helped was a man from Bangladesh. After converting from Islam to Christianity, the man was shunned by his family. He was stoned. Distant relatives beat him several times and tried to cut his vein with a sharpened blade. He still has marks on his body, he said. Newsday is not naming the man due to fear of retaliation for speaking out. 

"I was … beaten many times, was tortured physically, emotionally, [and] mentally," he said, adding, "My life was in real danger at that point."

But about 10 years ago, he realized it was time to leave the Muslim-majority South Asian nation after his son started kindergarten. His son's teacher pulled him aside to tell him he was in danger because his son was speaking out about his Christian ideals and "everyone" was "asking about you" and "your family in the school."

"My son was growing. I was feeling very insecure," he said. 

Eventually, he made the decision to leave in 2012 without his wife and son because it was too costly to bring them. He made it to the U.S., first to Chicago and later to New York. Then, through a ride from an acquaintance, he ended up at the Hofstra Law School Asylum Clinic. 

When the man from Bangladesh came to the U.S., his case differed from many others: He was granted asylum months after his arrival. But the time between filing and getting a decision, he said, was grueling. He was homeless, living at times with people in the Christian Bangladeshi community. He took a job at a perfume store in Manhattan, loading and unloading merchandise. 

Today, his situation has improved exponentially. He was able to bring his wife and son to the U.S. after an 18-month separation. He is a Christian missionary.

On a wall in his modest Queens home hangs an image of his parents. There, he discussed his late mother, who gave him the Bible that helped lead him to Christianity, and the process of reconnecting with his Muslim father who also immigrated to the U.S. He also spoke about how the clinic has helped him and others gain a freer existence. 

"People are fleeing their country," he said. "And they have the right to seek asylum. They have the right to live a life."

Long Island needs more immigration lawyers, advocate says

Jamin Enquist, a recent graduate of Hofstra's law school, said his experience working at the asylum clinic has left him deeply impacted by clients who exude strength through difficult ordeals.

"So many of these clients are so strong and resilient and I didn't anticipate how inspired I would be doing work for … these clients that had been through so much but still sought to build a life for themselves here," said Enquist, 27. 

He said working in the clinic has given him a newfound respect for people seeking citizenship through any channel and especially those seeking asylum. 

"It's a hard process and a lot to go through," he added. 

Elise de Castillo, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, which has offices in Brentwood and Hempstead and provides legal assistance and other services to immigrants on Long Island, said there needs to be better infrastructure to support them in both counties. Long Island, she said, needs more immigration lawyers. 

When an immigrant can't find legal representation, she said, sometimes they end up with notarios, people who misrepresent themselves as lawyers. Many immigrants often spend thousands of dollars to be represented by someone who does not have the qualifications to provide legal advice, according to the American Bar Association. They can give immigrants wrong information or lead them to miss a deadline, causing them to be needlessly deported. 

Moreover, asylum-seekers, in particular, often have difficulties finding housing. De Castillo said they often look to others in the Long Island immigrant community for help.

"There's one thing that we can say about immigrants is that they are wonderful at extending a hand to those who are coming after them … and providing support, sometimes in ways that even our local infrastructure isn't able to," de Castillo said.

Asylum journey inspires others 

Less than a month ago, an Amityville woman had a baby with her wife. Newsday is not naming the woman because of her fear of facing repercussions in her native Nicaragua for speaking about her experiences.

Before, this 40-year-old woman had been resigned to living alone. But after she met her wife when her now-spouse took a trip to the Latin American country in 2007, she was smitten.

But, she said, being in love with another woman could mean danger and ostracism in Nicaragua. Her family disapproved of her romance with the woman. And she worried about the potential for harm from groups of men who felt slighted by her attraction to women. 

In 2010, she permanently journeyed to the U.S., going through countries such as Guatemala and Honduras. She was hidden in a truck where she couldn't see anything until she crossed the southern border, where immigration authorities detained her for about a month. Immigration officials, she said, misclassified her as coming to the U.S. in search of a job.

Then her partner, who attended Hofstra, contacted Wren, who eventually brought her case to the clinic. Still, she did not get asylum until 2014. But what stuck out from her experience at the clinic, she said, was the waves of students who worked on her case, particularly one who stayed on it even after he graduated from law school.

"He believed in me," she said. "He believed that we were going to be working hard and … getting asylum."

At the time, she had to learn English and work babysitting and cleaning jobs. Currently, she is a legal assistant and strives to help others as she has been helped. In 2014, she helped start the LGBT Immigrants of Long Island group, which holds barbecues and other functions to build community. She often gives them motherly advice, and recently, members threw her a baby shower. 

 "I can give them the example of" how someone can be "free, loving and have a partner and have a family," she said.

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