Most Americans have seen the news stories of refugees seeking asylum at the nation’s southern border, and feel like they don’t have the resources or skills to assist these vulnerable individuals. When Womble Bond Dickinson’s Whitney Kamerzel saw that 200 asylum seekers were being transferred to South Carolina, and that most were not represented by counsel, she decided to use her skills as an attorney to help.
Kamerzel, a business litigator in the firm’s Charlotte office, recently spent a week providing pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers held at the Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Kamerzel worked with an organization called Mi Maletin to prepare refugees for credible fear hearings and to request review of negative determinations. In these credible fear interviews, immigration officials decide if an asylum seeker’s fear of returning to their home country is credible enough to pursue their claim for asylum in the U.S. Many of the people Kamerzel worked with came to the U.S. because of political or religious persecution, gang violence, or genocide occurring in their home countries.
“Our team was made up of lawyers from all over the country. We spent up to fifteen hours a day fighting for access to clients and helping them with their cases,” she said. “Many interviews had already been conducted without the help of an attorney and we had to correct misinformation that these people were given. Ninety percent of my clients didn’t speak English or understand the asylum process.”
“The majority of these people are fleeing horrible circumstances and many have been separated from their families along the way” Kamerzel said. Making matters worse, during a credible fear interview, asylum seekers are asked personal questions about why they can’t return to their country. “To answer these questions, they have to relive extremely traumatic experiences in detail. This is very difficult to do without an attorney, through a translator, and in an adversarial setting. The environment doesn’t make it easy either. The folks I talked to had not seen the sun for two months.”
Kamerzel recalls that just talking to an attorney boosted morale for the asylum seekers. “Word traveled fast that we were coming to help them and you could tell that they were sharing our information with each other. We raced to prepare these individuals before we lost access to them. On one night, it was almost 11 p.m. before I was permitted to speak to a client, knowing in all likelihood that he would be interviewed or transferred the next day. He was so appreciative because, despite having a strong case, he didn’t get a chance to talk about it in his first interview. In all honesty, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to help these folks tell their stories.”
Whitney Kamerzel ’s practice involves a variety of dispute resolution and general civil litigation matters. Her pro bono practice includes working with International House, an organization that helps immigrants learn English and navigate the citizenship process.