Info for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

W&M's Immigration Clinic assists Afghan refugees on the long road ahead

As the world watched Kabul fall, the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic sprang into action.

Founded in fall 2019, the Immigration Clinic represents immigrants across Hampton Roads in a variety of immigration cases, especially those immigrants who are survivors of trauma, crime and persecution. Since then, the Immigration clinic has trained law students to assist immigrants from around the world who otherwise would not have access to an attorney.

Stacy Kern-Scheerer (right) and Nicole Alanko ’18The Immigration Clinic is staffed by a faculty director, Professor Stacy Kern-Scheerer, and a supervising attorney, J. Nicole Alanko J.D. ’18, who was placed at the clinic as an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow, a grant-funded fellowship program.

They recently sat down to speak with the Law School Office of Advancement & Communications about the ongoing immigration challenges facing Afghans.

This story is part of W&M News' Faculty on Topic series - Ed.

Q: You both served as volunteer lawyers last month assisting Afghan individuals and families who arrived at Fort Lee Army Base, Virginia. Can you talk more about what you did there?

Stacy: Many of the individuals and families arriving at Fort Lee when we volunteered were Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Visas. SIV is a visa specifically for those who assisted the U.S. government in Afghanistan. SIV status provides a pathway to lawful permanent residency — and ultimately citizenship — because of that service to the U.S. What we did at Fort Lee was help those who had not yet finished the last stages of their SIV application complete their petitions.

Q: While some people fleeing Afghanistan entered the country somewhere in the process of receiving a visa for helping the U.S. military, not everyone who is afraid of the Taliban assisted the U.S. military. What are the immigration options for them?

Stacy: It is true that many people arriving in the U.S. were somewhere in the Special Immigrant Visa application process. However, the scope of the crisis impacted many more people. There are a lot of situations that don’t fit into the SIV category. In general, when someone seeks to come to the U.S., they have to have some kind of immigration pathway to get here. These pathways to visas or lawful permanent residency generally exist through family relationships, employment or humanitarian grounds. Because of the scale and scope of this crisis, attorneys and those assisting Afghans are utilizing as many of these pathways as they can for affected individuals. What we are seeing on a massive scale is the use of a mechanism called humanitarian parole so that impacted individuals and families can just get into the United States.

Q: What does it mean for someone to have humanitarian parole?

Stacy: Usually, humanitarian parole is not commonplace in immigration practice, because it reserved for dire situations. Now, with the large-scale emergency situation in Afghanistan, humanitarian parole is being used on a larger scale. What we are seeing is Afghans “paroled in” by the U.S. government generally have two years to figure out a pathway to lawful permanent residency. For example, some people who enter on parole are eligible for SIV and need to start the application. Other people might apply for asylum, such as someone who is subject to threats or danger from the Taliban because of who they are, whether or not they ever worked for the U.S. military. Others may have a family member who can petition for them for lawful permanent residency based on having a qualifying family relationship.

Q: Does humanitarian parole offer a pathway to citizenship?

Stacy: Not directly, no. Except in limited circumstances, someone must wait five years after receiving their lawful permanent residency (their “green card”) to apply to become a citizen. What we’re really thinking about right now is: How do we get people on a path to lawful permanent residency?

Nicole: This is exactly our challenge. Because humanitarian parole isn’t a pathway to apply for a green card, we have to find other ways to help them get to permanent status in the United States. Like Stacy said, for people like the families we met at Fort Lee, this means helping them finish the process of applying for a Special Immigrant Visa. For others, this will mean applying for asylum. All of these grant—or are an intermediate step to granting—lawful permanent residency.

Stacy: The complexity of all of these pathways illustrates how we are at the beginning of the immigration journey for many people. For those who have made it to the United States, they now have the time, but not unlimited time, to consult with an attorney to find their path to permanent status here in the U.S. if they do not already have one.

Q: How is the Immigration Clinic assisting Afghans who have fled Afghanistan, as well as people in the community who have family members still living in Afghanistan?

Stacy: As with most humanitarian crises, there are many competing needs happening all at once. The clinic is stepping up where and how we can. First, going to Fort Lee was an immediate way we could help recent arrivals with their immigration petitions. Moreover, despite the massive evacuation effort, there are many people who are still left behind in Afghanistan. One clinic student’s first assignment was to assist in preparing a humanitarian parole application for someone who is unfortunately still in danger in Kabul and who has family here in Hampton Roads.

Nicole: Another immediate effort that we are undertaking is ensuring that Afghans who have recently arrived have access to reliable information about the complex U.S. immigration system. In addition to general information on asylum, immigration court and changing addresses, we have set up a specific page for Afghans. We are working to get this translated into Pashto and Dari so that it is accessible to everyone who needs it. We want to be sure that everyone receives the information they need so that they don’t fall through the cracks.

Stacy: In the more medium-term, we are also preparing to take on cases of Afghans who will need to apply for asylum. Like we said, many people who have come on humanitarian parole may ultimately apply for asylum based on fear of persecution by the Taliban should they return to Afghanistan. The clinic already has a robust asylum practice, and we even won our first case before the Department of Homeland Security this summer. We are well-situated and prepared to assist asylum seekers from Afghanistan with their cases.

Q: The challenges that clinic clients from Afghanistan face seem insurmountable: individuals and families fleeing their homes, who may have arrived here with little or no financial resources, suffered significant trauma or have loved ones who remain in danger in their home country. How does the clinic train students to assist in these circumstances?

Stacy: Whether they are from Afghanistan, El Salvador, the Philippines or somewhere in between, almost all of our clinic clients are facing these types of challenges. Because the clinic specializes in humanitarian cases, our entire curriculum is centered around teaching students the skills to enable them to be effective advocates under these conditions. In almost all of our cases, we are assisting people who have survived and fled incredibly dangerous and traumatic situations. Students in the clinic this semester are seeing these challenges through the lens of Afghanistan in addition to the other countries our clients are from.

Every semester, students acquire real practice skills by representing clients in these contexts under our supervision. We have to be mindful about how we teach, prepare, and train students to be trauma-informed and client-centered. We make sure that they have the resources, support and mentorship that they need in order to be effective advocates in these types of situations.

Q: Discussions of trauma sound like they fit better in the curriculum of another discipline, such as psychology. How do you add trauma and being “trauma-informed” into your law school curriculum?

Nicole: Being interdisciplinary is extremely important in the clinic. As one example, Craig Cashwell from the School of Education comes to the clinic each semester to train our students on the impact that trauma has on our clients. Our students learn what they need to provide more effective representation for our clients, whether that is an interview in our office or testimony in court.

Q: This work seems so emotionally difficult. How are students handling this?

Stacy: This work is hard, both intellectually and emotionally. For many of our students, this is their first time encountering these kinds of situations in a legal context. This adds an extra layer of difficulty, and we want to prepare our students for this, as well as support them through these challenges. To that end, we are extremely open with our students about self-care and vicarious trauma. When attorneys don’t recognize how emotionally difficult this is or push aside their feelings, that is a clear path to burnout. That is the opposite of what we want our students to experience. To help address that, we have an open and honest dialogue about the challenges of doing this work.

Q: How does the clinic’s work illustrate the citizen-lawyer ethos?

Stacy: Our commitment to serving the most vulnerable in our community is our touchstone. We train students to meet this immediate need in Hampton Roads. After graduation, students who were enrolled in the clinic are uniquely positioned to assist underserved populations wherever their careers may take them.

Nicole: What is most important to me about the clinic is that the clinic takes the values that make a citizen-lawyer — leadership, insight, inclusion, community and progress — and puts them into action. Putting these values into action means that we train our students to spot justice gaps and rectify them using the skills they bring to the clinic. One such justice gap is the lack of reliable information for immigrants in a variety of languages. People may be ordered deported without even knowing it simply because they didn’t know how to check when their next hearing in immigration court would be. To remedy this, students translate our materials into a variety of languages, like Amharic, Mandarin and Arabic. By doing so, they are leading the way to support members of our community and rectify this simple injustice. By putting the values that make a citizen-lawyer into action, the Immigration Clinic is training the next generation of lawyers to create a more just and equitable society for all.

Q: How can people support the clinic’s work?

Stacy: There are different ways that individuals can support the clinic. For example, we are always looking for people who speak other languages fluently, especially less common languages. If you are fluent in or a native speaker of another language, we welcome you to contact us because we can always use more volunteers to help increase language access for our services.

The Immigration Clinic cannot do any of this work without the generosity of our donors and supporters. We are primarily funded by private grants and donations. This means that, without our supporters, we could not respond to the needs of our community as well as we do. We are proud of the work we have been able to accomplish over the last two years, and especially the growth that has been possible because of the addition of a second attorney. A full-time, dedicated staff attorney in addition to the director is necessary to sustain and increase the clinic’s capacity to represent more immigrants in complex cases, train more students, and educate the public on immigration law and police. Nicole’s position is set to expire at the end of this year, at which point the clinic will only have me as the director as the only attorney on staff. The clinic cannot sustain this level of growth without continued funding for a second attorney.