Pro bono lawyers assist Asheville’s Afghan evacuees

STEERING THE SHIP: Jacob Oakes, left, director of Pisgah Legal Services' immigration program and manager of its Afghan Asylum Project, and Katie Russell Miller, managing director of Pisgah Legal Services' pro bono programs, are coordinating asylum applications for dozens of Afghan evacuees. Photo courtesy of Evie White

In August 2021, the Taliban violently took control of Afghanistan, and over 120,000 Afghans evacuated the country in the ensuing weeks. Many of those who fled had worked with the United States military, nongovernmental organizations or the media, and they were welcomed into the U.S. through the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Allies Welcome — including more than 120 evacuees who made their way to the Asheville area between November 2021 and February.

Over a year later, 76 Afghan evacuees remain in Western North Carolina. (The rest have moved to be with extended family elsewhere in the U.S.) Their focus has turned to filing immigration applications to remain in the country.

Katie Russell Miller, managing director of pro bono programs for Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, says that process has proved challenging. Area nonprofits that helped initially resettle the evacuees, including Lutheran Services Carolinas and Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte, had voiced concern in March that national organizations were unable to meet the immense and unexpected need for pro bono legal representation in the Afghans’ immigration cases. Evacuees “were finding after months and months of waiting that [it wasn’t happening],” Miller says.

Immigration attorneys must determine which of numerous avenues works best for each Afghan national to remain in the U.S. lawfully and permanently. Navigating between those options can be complicated, and individuals who want to apply for asylum in the U.S. generally only have one year from their arrival date to do so, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“The clock was ticking,” Miller says. So, area lawyers rose to the occasion.

‘Unprecedented situation’

Pisgah Legal Services has previously represented immigration clients from around the world. Yet Jacob Oakes, who directs the nonprofit’s immigration program and manages its Afghan Asylum Project, calls the latest influx of evacuees an “unprecedented situation” and a “learning experience” due to its breadth and magnitude.

People seeking permanent status in the U.S. apply for what’s called an “immigration remedy,” explains Oakes. Pisgah Legal Services mostly assisted Asheville evacuees in applying for asylum, the only remedy for which most of them qualify. Being granted asylum would allow them to remain in the U.S. permanently and have a path to lawful permanent residency (also known as a green card) and eventual citizenship.

“We’re helping them to pursue any and all possibilities if we can,” he says. For all the evacuees, “their ultimate goal is permanent status here.”

Some asylum cases are individuals. Other cases may also include a spouse or minor children, so Pisgah Legal Services is assisting over 90 people worldwide who may benefit from these cases, Miller adds.

About 30 immediate family members of those being represented are in Afghanistan currently, Oakes explains. In some cases, during the haste of the evacuation, the evacuees left behind families who have since been threatened with violence.

“Many are living in hiding and facing threats from the Taliban,” Miller says. “If our clients secure asylum in the U.S., they can then begin a lengthy process of seeking permission to bring their spouses and children to safety in the U.S.”

Immigration rules set particular limits on who can be granted asylum status, Oakes says. Applicants must prove they have been persecuted in their home country or have a well-founded fear of persecution, based on a protected characteristic such as religion, race, ethnicity, political opinion or social group.

“Even if you’ve suffered harm or would be likely to suffer harm, if that harm is not motivated by animus toward a [protected] characteristic that you possess, you might not be able to be granted asylum,” Oakes explains. “And so, we have to be really deliberate about the way that we present these cases.”

The evacuees in Asheville include at-risk women, people from minority ethnic groups, those who were connected with the prior Afghan government and people who were associated with the U.S. military, Oakes says. Some speak English well, some speak limited English, and “we have individuals who can’t read or write in any language,” he adds.

Legal lift

The Afghan Asylum Project at Pisgah Legal Services relies on 52 volunteer attorneys — from Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Columbia and Charleston, S.C., and the Washington, D.C. area — to work on the asylum cases, says Miller.

As of Nov. 1, Pisgah Legal Services had filed asylum applications for 38 clients, who will undergo asylum interviews in Arlington, Va., explains Miller. Those interviews, if successful, could grant asylum to 61 adults and minors currently living in the U.S., she says. All interviews are expected to be completed by the end of November.

Approximately 30 volunteer attorneys helped prepare the applications, and about half of those attorneys committed to representing the cases at the asylum interviews in Arlington, Oakes says. Other volunteers are helping the Afghan Asylum Project effort with tasks like completing client intakes, gathering documents needed for asylum applications and transporting clients to appointments.

All 50 of Lutheran Services’ clients remaining in WNC have filed an asylum application, according to Hanna DeMarcus, resettlement director for Lutheran Services Asheville. She says Pisgah Legal is assisting nearly all of Lutheran Services’ Afghan clients. (Two families are being helped by private attorneys who are working pro bono.) More than half of those evacuees have completed their asylum interviews in Arlington, DeMarcus says.

Fresh starts

As the evacuees wait for clarity on their legal status, those who’ve stayed in Asheville are on a positive path. “We are happy to report that every household remaining in the area found stable housing and that at least one member of each household has found full-time employment,” DeMarcus says. Lutheran Services still assists clients who ask for help with medical referrals, job searches and other issues.

Noele Aabye from Catholic Charities originally settled 42 individuals in Asheville, and 26 of them remain in WNC. Those evacuees include three families, with five school-age children among them, and several men who were separated from spouses and families in Afghanistan.

All 26 are working or studying, and some are doing both, Aabye says. A few are working in caregiver roles in the home, and 19 are “working at least one job — many with two or even three,” she explains.

These jobs include positions in manufacturing, hotels and restaurants. At least one person has an administrative role. “Some have moved on from their first, entry-level jobs and are now training for careers that are more closely aligned with what they had done [in Afghanistan],” Aabye says.

A few individuals are in the English program at A-B Tech, and others are taking regular coursework to complete core requirements toward a degree at the community college. “That’s very exciting,” Aabye says. “Because I know a year ago, those dreams seemed really far away.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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