Look past the politics and rhetoric surrounding the US-Mexico border and you’ll find real people, with real human needs. Hundreds of refugees are in the process of seeking asylum in the US due to threats of violence in their home countries.
Womble Bond Dickinson attorney Heath Misley, an IP lawyer in the firm’s Boston office, recently traveled to a refugee center in San Antonio to provide pro bono legal help for these refugees during the initial stages of the asylum process. His pro bono work was coordinated by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based non-profit organization that provides legal services to immigrants and refugees.
“The first step in the asylum process is called the ‘Credible Fear Interview,’” Misley said. “In this interview, they have to persuade an immigration officer that they have a credible fear for their safety.” Often, this fear comes in the form of organized crime cartels, which exercise considerable power in many Latin American rural communities.
The group of refugees Misley worked with all are fathers and sons from Guatemala and Honduras. So in many cases, these fathers brought their sons to the US border because the boys didn’t want to join the local gang. But defying a cartel or gang put them and their families in danger, so they had to flee their homes.
But even refugees who have legitimate fears often struggle with the Credible Fear Interview. Misley said they may be distrustful of authority figures and unsure of exactly what they should say.
“A lot of them don’t know how to read or write. They’ve never talked to a judge or a lawyer. They just brought their family to try to get away from danger,” Misley said.
His job – and that of other volunteer attorneys – is to counsel refugees for these interviews. He said he instructs them to be honest and thorough about the dangers they face back home.
“We’re really coaching them on how to advocate for themselves,” he said. Once refugees pass the Credible Fear Interview, they still have to complete a number of steps before receiving asylum in the US. But this initial interview is the first key step in the process and must be passed if the refugee is to earn asylum status.
The work involved a week of 10-hour days, seeing one client every 40 minutes. The work gave Misley a chance to use his fluent Spanish – a skill he learned studying at Texas A&M University and living in Mexico for two years.
He also previously completed a pro bono case for two children from El Salvador, which further sparked an interest in helping vulnerable immigrants and refugees. In this case, the two children—ages 13 and 11—successfully applied for unaccompanied minor visas thanks to Misley’s guidance.
“It was emotionally draining, but very rewarding,” Misley said of his experience in San Antonio. “These fathers and sons are in extreme conditions. They’ve had a hard journey to get here. But many are still hopeful and positive.”
Misley is the second Womble Bond Dickinson attorney to provide pro bono work to asylum seekers at the southern border. Attorney Jennifer Itzkoff traveled to San Antonio in August 2018 for a similar pro bono project.
Heath Misley is an IP attorney with experience preparing and prosecuting patent applications, both in the United States and internationally. With a background in electrical engineering, he is experienced in a number of technical areas including analog and digital circuitry, communication systems, semiconductor device design and fabrication, electromagnetics, and Internet-based technologies.