Shakera Rahimi knows firsthand how hard it is to start over in Maryland after fleeing Afghanistan.
As the Afghan Alliance coordinator for Columbia-based Luminus Network for New Americans, Rahimi switched career paths from medicine to refugee resettlement last year so she could help Afghan evacuees fleeing the Taliban build new lives in Maryland the way she did seven years ago.
“The greatest need, and the biggest concern, for these Afghan families is finding ways to get legal representation in the United States,” Rahimi said.
According to the State Department, 74,000 Afghans had come to the U.S. under Operation Allies Welcome by December 2021. More than a year after the U.S. withdrawal, many Afghan arrivals in the Baltimore area have found housing and jobs. Now they are trying to secure a future in the country as permanent residents.
Last week, Congress voted to exclude an amendment that would have removed the threat of deportation facing Afghans with humanitarian parole from a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill. The legislation would have created a path to obtaining green cards.
Armed with her knowledge of Afghan culture and her fluency in Dari and Pashto, Rahimi joined a new program earlier this year at Villanova University’s School of Professional Studies, which trains non-attorneys to be accredited legal representatives who can shepherd people through the immigration court system.
Villanova law professor Michele Pistone founded Villanova’s Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates, or VIISTA, to train advocates to help immigrants who overwhelmingly face the immigration courts alone.
“The problem is access to legal representation,” Pistone said. “It makes it much harder for people, even those who are eligible and have rights under the law, for them to be able to articulate their rights and present a case.”
Offered through Villanova’s College of Professional Studies, the program by this fall had granted about 300 certificates since its launch in 2020, Pistone said. Students come from various states, including Maryland.
Accredited representatives are recognized through a DOJ program and can represent low-income clients in immigration courts while working for a nonprofit organization designated as a “recognized organization.”
The program is the first offered through a university that is specifically geared toward training accredited representatives. Not every participant becomes accredited, Pistone said, but it trains advocates who might not otherwise be able to spend the time or money to study immigration in law school.
Meanwhile, students in the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law’s immigration clinic spent their fall semester helping Afghan clients navigate the asylum process.
“We thought students would find it interesting,” said law professor Maureen Sweeney, director of the Chacón Center for Immigrant Justice. “We had all this news about all these people who would be unrepresented.”
Eight students this fall helped a select group of pro bono Afghan clients submit applications, and prepared others for grueling asylum interviews by holding mock interviews in an event held with other local law schools. Sweeney led the clinic, which usually takes on cases for asylum applicants facing deportation, along with Gabriela Kahrl, co-director of the Chacón Center.
Asylum is designed to protect people facing persecution in their country of origin for a set of particular reasons. New arrivals typically have one year to apply for asylum in the U.S., but because Afghan evacuees were granted humanitarian parole status, they had an extra year to apply, Sweeney said.
The asylum office has prioritized applications for those Afghan evacuees, granting interviews within 30 to 45 days of submitting an application and delaying the process for applicants from other countries who might have waited three or four years for an interview.
“None of those cases are moving forward, because we’re moving these Afghan cases through and granting 99% of them,” Sweeney said, a departure from the normal approval rate.
Of 24,845 asylum decisions in the Baltimore immigration court since 2000, relief was denied in 13,524 cases, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC.
“It’s just the stupidest waste of resources ever in a system that is used to wasting resources,” Sweeney said. “These are people that the U.S. government evacuated. And we’re making them go through this process.”
Not all Afghans will have to apply for asylum. Some, like Rahimi, may qualify for the special immigrant visa, a process that Kahrl said can be cumbersome and require extensive documentation.
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Rahimi came to the United States with her family in 2014, choosing Maryland for its proximity to colleges and universities that her children could attend.
She was a physician in Afghanistan, working closely with the U.S. government between 2003 and 2014. Although her medical license didn’t carry over to the U.S., she became a surgeon’s first assistant and until recently worked in the medical field. Watching the Taliban takeover in 2021 inspired her to help those others forced to flee as she was.
“It’s challenging to start all over again in a new country where the language, culture and expectations are so different, where your previous education, experience and qualifications may not be recognized — especially if you’re still dealing with trauma of violence, threats, sudden separation and great loss,” she said.
After starting at Luminus in January, she recognized she needed more training to understand the legal concepts that would decide her clients’ futures. She is working to apply for accreditation after participating in the VIISTA program.
In addition to legal services, Rahimi said, Luminus helps clients access health services and English classes, get to medical appointments, enroll kids in school, obtain government benefits and apply for jobs. The program serves 150 Afghan families in Maryland, or around 450 people in total.
Rahimi’s own experience seven years ago was different from those of people she helps in her job today, because although her family’s security was at risk, she had time to prepare for the huge move.
“They had no time to prepare,” she said. “Only whatever they could put ... in their backpacks, with no hope to see home or extended family or friends again.”