Most Americans have seen the heartbreaking 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 Jennifer Itzkoff saw these stories, she decided she had to use her skills as an attorney to help.
Itzkoff, an intellectual property attorney in the firm’s Boston office, spent the week of August 20-24 providing pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers held at the Karnes County Residential Center that Itzkoff describes as a detention center. Itzkoff assisted in preparing refugees for credible fear hearings. She also prepared documents to request review of the credible fear determination if the individuals received a negative result. In these credible fear interviews, immigration officials decide if the asylum seeker’s fear of returning to their home country is credible to the level that he or she can continue to pursue their claim for asylum in the United States. The credible fear interview is the first step in determining whether a refugee can stay or if they are to be deported back to their home country.
“Legal services are important because these people are coming from countries where there is a lot of distrust of the government,” Itzkoff said. Fearful asylum seekers may not feel safe, thus hindering their ability to speak freely about their situation. They fear that their true stories would put their families back home in further danger.
Many of the asylum seekers in Texas came to the U.S. because of violence and political corruption in their home countries. In many cases, families are fleeing organized gangs. Children are particularly at risk because in some gang-controlled communities, young people are given an ultimatum: Join the local gang or be injured or even killed. At the Texas facility, Itzkoff worked with many parents who came to the U.S. because someone had already attempted to hurt their child, given an ultimatum, and they literally feared for the lives of their children.
“The majority of these people are fleeing horrible circumstances,” she said. Making matters worse, many of the clients she served had been separated from their children under the U.S. Government’s recent “Zero Tolerance” policy.
However, these same experiences may make it hard for asylum seekers to effectively advocate for themselves. During a credible fear interview an asylum seeker will be asked why they fear returning to their home country. “These are personal questions and they have to relive traumatic events,” she said. “It’s difficult for them to express their fear of returning to their home country.”
As a fluent Spanish speaker, Itzkoff also was able to help refugees navigate language barriers. For example, during one interview, she had to speak up on behalf of a client because the government-appointed translator wasn’t accurately translating the client’s story.
“There’s no transcript for these interviews and that can be a hurdle as well,” she said. “It’s really important for people to have legal representation during these interviews.”
Itzkoff’s 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.
Jennifer Itzkoff guides clients through developing registration strategies and has significant experience in trademark clearance, prosecution, maintenance, and enforcement work, and regularly handles internet based claims and concerns. In addition, she handles complex administrative trademark opposition and cancellation proceedings, often to early resolution. Jennifer has helped many software and technology companies in obtaining brand protection to stand out in an often crowded marketplace, and she relies on her intellectual property litigation background to assist clients in risk management, as well as avoiding and resolving trademark, copyright and related disputes.
Her pro bono practice also includes working with Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that assists children with immigration proceedings.