CHICAGO — Frank Sandoval has spent the last four weeks volunteering to help migrants arriving on buses from Texas to find shelter and basic resources, like food and coats, in the Chicago area.
As an immigrant himself, he relates to so many of the more than two thousand migrants that have arrived in Chicago since August 31. Like Sandoval, the majority of people bused to Chicago have fled Venezuela and are seeking asylum in the United States.
Because Sandoval is bilingual, he’s been able to assist with intake documentation and provide translation services at the shelters as a volunteer with the nonprofit Illinois Access to Justice. He’s also serving food to the migrants, attempting to help get them working permits and spending hours of his time talking with them about their current situation and the legal challenges they’re facing. As an attorney, and someone who has dedicated himself to helping others, he’s glad he can provide support for the migrants.
But he said the experience is stirring up deep emotions from his own difficult journey to the U.S. four years ago. He’s reminded of how much it hurt to be away from his family and how scared he was that he would not be able to stay in his new home.
“I’m reliving everything,” said Sandoval. “Everything’s coming up again.”
Back in Venezuela, Sandoval was an attorney who specialized in tax and labor law. But when his life was threatened because of his political affiliation, he came to the U.S. in 2018 to seek asylum.
The asylum process has only become more difficult since then due to a shortage of immigration lawyers in the U.S. that handle asylum cases, a problem that has been mounting for years. Immigration advocates Borderless spoke with say that the need for immigration lawyers, particularly those that handle asylum cases, is at an all-time high. Burnout, years of changing immigration policies under President Donald Trump, and the influx of asylum seekers and migrants from countries like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Venezuela in recent years has only added to the growing crisis. And with the stakes for asylum seekers who have fled dangerous conditions and need representation in immigration court often being a matter of life or death, immigrant advocates in Chicago are searching for new solutions.
An Overburdened Legal System
Like many industries, immigration lawyers struggled through the pandemic. Many have quit due in part to the stress of the job, challenging policies put in place under the Trump administration, and a growing backlog of cases. Representing asylum seekers, in particular, offers its own difficulties, including clients who can pay little or nothing for representation.
“There’s a shortage of immigration attorneys that will take on asylum cases, period,” said KiKi Mosley, an immigration attorney of twelve years and treasurer of the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “When taking on asylee and refugee cases, immigration attorneys are not looking to turn a profit, but you get to a point where it’s hard to pay your own bills for your practice.”
As a major city that attracts immigrants, Chicago specifically has been struggling to support the recent influx of asylum seekers. After dealing with cuts under the Trump administration and then the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant serving organizations’ resources were already strained before the war in Ukraine and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover sent thousands of refugees and asylum seekers to Chicago. The recent arrival of migrants from Texas has only added to the strain on organizations’ resources, including legal services and representation.
“We’ve seen humanitarian crisis after humanitarian crisis,” said Jane Lombardi, the director of immigrant justice partnerships at The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing, financial education, and immigration legal services and advocacy in Chicago. “With so many folks needing asylum assistance, it’s really stretching our providers to meet the needs within a short timeframe.”
With very little structure or timeline, asylum cases take on average four and half years — and over 40% of asylum applications that have been filed since October 2000 are still pending.
“There are people who have been languishing, waiting for an [asylum] interview for years, who have no idea when they’re actually going to be interviewed,” said Mosley.
There are two types of asylum cases, affirmative and defensive. Affirmative asylum cases require an individual to be physically present in the U.S. and fear for their safety in their home country. Affirmative asylum seekers have one year to file an application.
Defensive asylum is when deportation proceedings have begun and an individual requests asylum to prevent removal from the U.S. These cases are made in defense against the Department of Homeland Security’s desire to remove that person from the U.S. Most asylum seekers being bused to Chicago from Texas are facing defensive asylum cases, say immigrant advocates.
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Because there is a more imminent threat in defensive asylum cases, local organizations like the National Immigrant Justice Center often allocate more resources to providing counsel to defensive asylum seekers.
“With the shortage, we’re trying to figure out where is the place where we can prevent the most acute threat of harm, and that’s in a defensive context,” said Lisa Koop, the National Director of Legal Services at NIJC.
In both types of asylum cases, individuals are not guaranteed legal representation. Asylum seekers must rely on a meager number of pro bono services, or foot the bill for an immigration lawyer, ranging anywhere from $1,000 to over $10,000, depending on the type of case. Even if someone can afford a lawyer’s fee, finding legal representation in time for your asylum hearing can be difficult.
“There are scenarios where you have people that are being pushed through the system really quickly. And with no right to appointed counsel, you can find yourself set for an asylum trial before you have the opportunity to locate counsel, and that can be really detrimental,” Koop said.
Additionally, asylum cases require exhaustive work, and typically involve stories of tremendous trauma that lawyers have to shoulder. Burnout is rampant among lawyers, and a mounting backlog is not helping the already overwhelmed system. It’s a system that Sandoval is all too familiar with, as an attorney, and as someone who went through the asylum process himself.
Sandoval’s Journey to Freedom
Sandoval first came to the U.S. from Venezuela in the ‘90s to study English and paralegal studies. He expected that the skills he learned would be helpful, and that being bilingual would allow him to provide legal assistance to more people back home.
But his return to Venezuela in 2000 brought him financial problems, hardship, and ultimately put his life in danger.
Sandoval resumed his professional life as an attorney once home and became a professor at two local universities. When he became ill in 2011, he faced mounting financial strain and wanted to find a job with more stability. Through a friend, he was able to secure a government job, but had to hide his active affiliation with an anti-government party.
The Venezuelan government under then-President Hugo Chávez was known widely for their discrimination against political opponents and critics. They had fired political opponents from state agencies, denied citizens access to social programs, and discriminated against critical media outlets and labor unions. United Nations investigators found that Chávez loyalists would kidnap, torture, and kill political adversaries.
When new leadership was appointed in the government following his friend’s retirement, he was asked to resign because of his political party affiliation. When he refused, he was demoted. But he remained politically active. As images of him at demonstrations began circulating, he was denied medical treatment for his debilitating illness, and received continued calls and messages threatening his life. He was no longer safe at home. That’s when he decided to flee to the U.S.
In June 2018, he came to New Jersey to be with his father and filed for asylum. He relocated to New York the next month, was given a work permit and was volunteering for Legal Services NYC, but struggled to find work in the city. He looked to the lawyers at Legal Services NYC for help with his asylum case, but since he technically worked for them, they said they were unable to represent him.
He moved to Illinois the next year to take a job as a legal associate. Even with his new salary, however, he couldn’t afford a private attorney for his asylum case, which he was told would cost him $8,000. Making matters worse, he found out that he made too much money to qualify for a pro bono attorney, even though he was only making $20 an hour.
Sandoval finally decided that he was going to represent himself. He attended an asylum legal training, watched videos about the immigration hearing process, studied the court regulations policies, consulted those that had been through the process, and gathered the evidence necessary for his case.
After a grueling process lasting four years, Sandoval was finally granted asylum.
“I felt not just relief but I felt safe,” said Sandoval. “I felt like I’m going to keep living.”
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But Sandoval’s English education and legal knowledge and experience make him a rare case among asylum seekers.
Between October 2000 and September 2021, of the 1.3 million completed asylum cases out of more than 1.6 million filed, only 46% were granted asylum.
And those without representation typically fare far worse.
A lack of English language skills, legal know-how, and a general understanding of all that’s required in an asylum case creates tremendous barriers for those that represent themselves, known as “pro se” asylum seekers, says Lombardi.
Only 1 in 10 individuals win their asylum case when they don’t have legal representation. And as the immigrant lawyer shortage continues, more and more asylum seekers hoping for safety in the United States are coming to terms with that reality.
The need for attorneys has made immigration law offices and organizations that assist in asylum representation in Chicago rethink how they’re distributing their resources.
“We are trying to respond to the shortage of attorneys by equipping people to represent themselves, which is not ideal, but there are few good options,” said Koop of NIJC. The nonprofit has been running pro se affirmative asylum clinics in partnership with other legal aids and organizations to help asylum seekers understand the ins and outs of the court system and to give them a better chance of winning their case. They walk individuals through applying for asylum, how to prepare their forms, and what to expect during their interview.
They also have set up an Immigration Court Helpdesk Hotline where immigrants filing for defensive asylum can receive free legal information, including an overview of the immigration court hearing process, forms of relief available, and referrals to legal representation.
“If we can formalize some of the information sharing and create things like videos or written materials that can be passed on to everyone, it’ll free up some of our attorneys to be able to meet one-on-one with people and answer questions and help them really have their stories be told in the most effective way possible,” said Elizabeth Rompf Bruen, an immigration attorney and chair of the Chicago chapter of AILA..
AILA is also recruiting volunteer law students and attorneys to help with intake, interpreting and legal screening to help alleviate the shortage of assistance.
This fast mobilization among various immigrant serving organizations and legal groups has been critical in the last year, Rompf Bruen said.
“It’s been great watching cooperation between government representatives, various nonprofits and private attorneys responding to the need for legal services,” Rompf Bruen said. “We’ve seen these receiving communities step up and form a village around our newest neighbors so they can receive safety and support.”
While the city of Chicago has done its best to rally around the needs of the newly arrived asylum seekers, there are still plenty of remaining challenges.
For one, many of the migrants have upcoming court dates in locations that are thousands of miles away. And while Pritzker’s State of Emergency declaration will hopefully help speed up housing, transportation and care for these individuals, resources are still needed on a continual basis.
Koop says it’s also important that resources are allocated to help with capacity building for legal services, like mentoring potential lawyers, and creating a pipeline of advocates, particularly those who bring cultural competency and speak other languages.
Similarly, Lombardi said that there’s a need for sustained funding to be able to pay nonprofit staff a competitive salary. Significant state-funded investment to nonprofits that provide immigration legal services only began in recent years, which means organizations are still trying to build up their expertise and ability to take on asylum cases.
To help expand the community of immigration lawyers, several programs have launched to break down barriers for those that might find law school prohibitive.
The Resurrection Project just launched a fellowship called the Colibri Fellowship for DOJ Accreditation — a first of its kind professional fellowship to train individuals seeking DOJ Accreditation. The fellowship lasts a year, and all of the 23 fellows are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants.
Additionally, the Recognition and Accreditation Program under the Department of Justice allows nonprofits to become recognized organizations and have their non-attorney staff act as legal representatives in immigration court.
Ultimately, legal advocates like Frank Sandoval and immigrants seeking asylum want a more formalized and expedited process with adequate resources to tell the stories of the millions of people seeking asylum.
“We want the administration to process these cases faster,” said Sandoval. “We come here because we are looking for a safe place to live, but there’s no immediate relief. You get stuck in immigration procedures for years.”
Several times a day, Sandoval is interrupted from his mountain of immigration cases by the sound of bridge bells. He can see the seafoam green bridge that sits over the Des Plaines River out his office window at the Spanish Community Center in Joliet. The tranquil scene of the bridge going up is a welcome break from his difficult work advocating for immigrants. But it’s also a reminder of how far he’s come since he fled his home in Venezuela.
It took nearly four years for Sandoval to finish his asylum case in the United States. He’s now filing for asylum on behalf of his wife and daughter, who are still living in Venezuela. Sandoval submitted all the necessary paperwork and asked for an expedited process at the beginning of April 2022, but still hasn’t heard back from the government.
“We’ve been separated for four years, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for them to come over here,” Sandoval said. “This is crazy.”
He said he still has nightmares about his life in Venezuela, but he’s hopeful that he and his family will be safely reunited here soon.