Alumni of the UConn Law Asylum and Human Rights Clinic are playing a key role in a new project to help Afghan evacuees seek asylum in Connecticut.
Jeffrey Curtin ’21, Ben Haldeman ’16, Meghann LaFountain ’11, and Ellen Messali ’10, all participated in the clinic during law school, and now represent asylum seekers in their everyday work. They will offer that experience in the Connecticut Bar Foundation’s project to address the increased need for representation of Afghan refugees.
Operation Allies Refuge evacuated more than 124,000 Afghans in August 2021 as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Those who were settled in the United States, including an estimated more than 900 in Connecticut, were granted temporary humanitarian parole status. For many, that status expires on March 31, 2023.
This means an influx of asylum cases for Connecticut attorneys working in immigration, both in nonprofit agencies and in private practice. To address this need, the Connecticut Bar Foundation has launched the CT Afghan Asylum Project, aiming to recruit volunteer attorneys and match them with mentor attorneys who have experience in asylum representation.
“There’s a lot of evidence that representation in asylum proceedings greatly increases your chance of success,” Haldeman says. “It’s an area of the law in which there is a definite impact in having an attorney, and multiply that by the number of people who will go unrepresented without this project and you get an idea of the scale.”
Haldeman got involved in the project early and played a large role in recruiting mentor attorneys, people who do this work on a regular basis — and are likely to be representing Afghan evacuees outside of the project.
He, Messali, Curtin, and LaFountain are serving as mentor attorneys along with the clinic’s faculty, Professors Jon Bauer and Diana R. Blank. They will offer guidance on preparing cases, sharing resources and feedback, and answering questions from those who have not worked in asylum representation previously. Messali and Haldeman are staff attorneys working at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. LaFountain owns her own immigration practice and Curtin works for O’Neil-Baker Law.
“This is something you may be able to do working at a corporate firm and you want to do something more meaningful or something that tugs at your heartstrings,” LaFountain says. “This is a lot of human interaction, difficult stories, heartache. But I think it gives the immigrants and the people who want to volunteer a sense of unity in trying to get something done.”
The bar foundation has highlighted that the Asylum Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which hears these cases, has reported a high approval rate in Afghan asylum cases. The asylum process for Afghan evacuees has been fast-tracked, with an interview scheduled within 45 days of filing the application. Legal representation ensures applicants can navigate their way through a complex and unforgiving process, giving them the best chance of a successful outcome.
“This is critically important in our community,” Messali says. “These individuals are struggling even more than any of us can understand. On top of all of that, they’re trying to understand what it takes from a legal standpoint with language barriers and other challenges. This work is critical to help our neighbors to be able to live their lives again somewhere they are safe and to know there are people who support and care for them.”
The alumni agree that the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic helped prepare them for their subsequent work with asylum-seekers.
LaFountain calls working in the clinic during her third year of law school a “life-changer” that set her on her professional path. Curtin says the clinic is the perfect way to get started in asylum law. Beyond the legal knowledge, he credits Bauer with teaching trauma-informed counseling, to help clients feel comfortable opening up to a stranger coming out of something very difficult.
Messali believes the number of UConn colleagues on the project “shows the impact of the clinic in determining the future of public interest immigration workers in the state.”
Bauer agrees. “The devotion of so many of alums of the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic to advancing access to justice for refugees and immigrants is inspiring,” he says.
“The law school is proud of the work that our alumni are doing in this area,” says Jessica Rubin, associate dean for experiential education. “Building on the training and inspiration provided by our clinic, our alumni are sharing their expertise in order to increase the availability of legal representation in asylum cases.”