Partners For Justice
Attorneys Team Up With VHH As Participants Make The Case For Asylum
To the young men residing at Viator House of Hospitality, the support they experience is a welcome pause from traumatic months or even years making their way along a perilous path very much on their own. Supported by staff members and volunteers, secure in their daily pursuits of school, work and friendship, they can focus on the ultimate goal of gaining asylum and striding into a better life.
To get there, ironically, it first requires retelling all that trauma to a government officer in a way that is articulate, consistent and thorough. All too often, “an asylum case is made solely on the testimony of the asylum seeker,” said Kelly Kribs, an attorney who works as a professional advocate with the Young
Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “So they need to tell their story in a way that a decision-maker finds credible.”
The center’s advocates are appointed to guard the best interests of immigrants arriving as minors, and Viator House is a haven as they turn 18 and no longer can stay in a juvenile detention “For so many of the kids we work with who arrive at Viator House, it’s the first time they can exhale after they’ve arrived in the country,” Kribs said. “The peace of mind that the stability and sense of permanency brings is so beneficial to their mental well-being. And that has an immediate impact on the pursuit of their legal case.”
As difficult as it can be to substantiate the case, getting to Viator House means these young men already have cleared two major hurdles in the way of affirming their right to stay. Immigrants kept in detention have much dimmer prospects of being granted asylum. Research shows that more than 7 in 10 who arrive as children win if they have lawyers; 9 in 10 without such representation lose. But only 14 percent of detained immigrants have a lawyer, compared with 2 out of every 3 who are not detained.
Br. Michael Gosch had been working for programs to house and help men and women immigrating as adults and seeking relief from deportation threats, when he started hearing about unaccompanied minors who age out of juvenile facilities. “On their 18th birthday, they were handcuffed and taken to adult detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” he recalled.
A member of the Clerics of St. Viator, Br. Michael approached the order to open up a “post-18” house, and Viator House was launched in January 2017. The attorney side of the asylum equation was covered by setting up a working relationship with the National Immigrant Justice Center, which provides legal representation at no cost.
Legal professionals agree on how essential that representation is. “Ultimately, to get to that finish line in their legal case, they need an attorney,” said Ashley Huebner, who supervises lawyers with the NIJC’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project who take cases of Viator House residents starting when they are still in a juvenile detention center. “But to have that support from Viator House, to be sure their basic needs are met so they can focus on their immigration case, is really critical.”
As resilient as they’ve proven to be to get this far, their justification for asylum is rooted in experiences that were deeply traumatizing. If not comfortable disclosing the full extent of the trauma, they can hurt their case, said Kribs. The forces that will overcome this challenge are the buildup of trust and rapport, feelings of safety and security, and the sense of purpose that comes with attending school, working a job and pitching in. “Obviously all of this is much easier when we are working with an organization like Viator House, because the staff is exceptionally well trained and experienced in serving this population,” she explained.
Still, the burden of proof can be heavy. Young people are “expected to give testimony about all the hardest things that have happened in their lives,” said Marie Silver, an attorney assigned by the Immigrant Children’s Protection Project to represent Viator House residents. Testimony runs to descriptions of highly personal abuse and harrowing violence, whether political, ethnic, gang or domestic. “And they’re expected to talk about these things in great detail, consistently, for multiple hours.”
The breadth of the trauma is extensive, Br. Michael related. “We talk about these kids being traumatized three times: once in the home country, once on the way to this country, and then the third time going into detention and having all of their choices taken from them.”
Traumatized individuals might divulge their story in fits and starts, out of chronological order, leaving out big gaps in memory, Kribs said, noting that
a decision-maker not well-versed in that kind of trauma may see such a narrative as a credibility problem. Viator House “does an excellent job” of bringing in clinical services and therapy, and staff members work with residents over time to tell a more chronological and coherent story, she said, so the hearing officer is more likely to conclude that it makes sense, that someone would flee this situation and its persecutions.
Generally, Viator House staff will write statements in advance for the adjudicator to read for context, if the young man undergoing the hearing wants that inclusion. Staff also help residents to practice for the interview, and attend interviews for moral support, said Silver. In addition to the legal assist, Viator House meets their needs to feel a sense of stability, feel safe and be familiar with surroundings, especially as the scheduling of cases drags on month after month. “Viator staff are so patient, and they understand that some of these kids are coming from really tough, very different lifestyles than the ones expected of them here as students and young people,” she said.
“I call them my mountain-movers,” said Kribs about the Viator House staff, citing “the lengths that they go through to provide these young men with a safe home—not just housing or lodging—where they are cared for, where they have a sense of community, to begin to engage in the world around them. It brings them a level of peace that they haven’t known.”
John Morrissey – A Viator House volunteer