Yale law alums providing legal aid to asylum seekers

Dorothy Tegeler ’16 J.D. has suddenly found herself in the national spotlight. Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), the organization she cofounded with three other Yale Law School alumni, is providing legal aid to immigrants making asylum claims  —  a story that has captured the world’s attention as recent immigrants from Central America have been forcibly separated from their children and housed in detention centers awaiting an uncertain future.

Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project co-founder Dorothy Tegeler ’16 J.D.
Dorothy Tegeler ’16 J.D. was inspired to get involved in immigrant legal aid after visiting a detention center in Texas in 2015. (Photo courtesy of ASAP)

ASAP has since been featured on the “Today Show” and in Time, Fast Company and Vice as an organization that’s working on the front lines of immigrant detention. Despite an executive order reversing the decision to separate children from their parents at the border, more than 2,000 children remain separated, with no clear path for reunification.

Tegeler’s work on this issue began in 2015 when she first visited the nation’s largest immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas. “It’s in a very isolated, rural area,” Tegeler says. “There are a bunch of trailers spread out, and lawyers don’t have access to the living quarters. People are kept in crowded rooms, lights are kept on all night — there are a lot of concerns about the conditions.” 

Tegeler, along with Conchita Cruz ’16 J.D., Swapna Reddy ’16 J.D., and Liz Willis ’17 J.D., founded ASAP soon after with a mission to provide the legal help asylum seekers need in order to successfully plead their cases. Immigrants fleeing violence in their home country have the legal right to make their appeal for asylum in the U.S., and the right to due process. But thousands of them, says Tegeler, do not have access to legal services. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which has analyzed data from the Department of Justice, having an attorney is “almost a necessity for winning asylum in Immigration Court. Not only is the complexity of applying daunting for many, unrepresented individuals who do manage to file a claim are largely unsuccessful.” They report that asylum seekers with legal representation were denied 48% of the time. Without representation, their claims were denied 90% of the time.

Tegeler is based in New Haven, and other ASAP cofounders and volunteers are spread throughout the country, providing legal assistance remotely. The organization remains strongly connected with Yale and draws volunteers both from Yale Law School and Yale College on everything from legal drafting to interpreting. Tegeler also benefited from being a “Changemaker in Residence” at Yale’s Dwight Hall, which provided office space and access to supplies.

Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project co-founders Liz Willis ’17 J.D., Conchita Cruz ’16 J.D., Swapna Reddy ’16 J.D., and Dorothy Tegeler ’16 J.D.
The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project was cofounded by four Yale Law School graduates (left to right): Liz Willis ’17 J.D., Conchita Cruz ’16 J.D., Swapna Reddy ’16 J.D., and Dorothy Tegeler ’16 J.D. (Photo courtesy of ASAP)

The organization currently oversees an online community of more than 2,500 formerly detained mothers who are all in asylum proceedings. Some of these mothers have family connections with the recent asylum seekers who are looking to be reunited with their children. “We’re helping people locate missing family members and then trying to connect them with legal services,” Tegeler says. She adds that there were previously three large detention centers for holding families in Texas and Pennsylvania. Now, children are being sent to facilities as far from the southern border as Michigan, Maryland, New York, and Virginia. “It’s challenging to figure out where people are,” she says.

She also stressed that trading child-parent separation for indefinite detention of mothers and children (fathers, she noted, are sent to men-only facilities) is not a workable solution. “Even under the current legal framework, you could welcome asylum seekers,” she says. “Once they pass an interview, they would be released to wait with family or friends while they await their asylum trial.” According to federal data analyzed by TRAC, 86% of asylum seekers awaiting trial show up for their court hearing.

ASAP’s first client, Suny Rodriguez Alvarado, has filed a lawsuit against U.S. authorities — the first case of its kind — and are seeking monetary damages for the treatment she, her son, and husband, received while in detention. The family had come to the U.S. in 2015 after fleeing violence in Honduras. ASAP is co-counseling the case with the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale as well as Gibbons P.C. and Morningside Heights Legal Services Inc. at Columbia Law School. At the time Alvarado connected with ASAP, U.S. authorities had separated her from her husband, and threatened her with separation from her 7-year-old son. The lawsuit alleges inhumane conditions during their four-month detention, including sleeping on a floor in wet, cold rooms, lights on all night, and harassment from staff. The family has already won its immigration case with ASAP’s help.

U.S. asylum-seeker  Suny Rodriguez Alvarado and her family.
The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project has filed a lawsuit against U.S. authorities on behalf of Suny Rodriguez Alvarado and her family over their inhumane treatment during detention. (Photo courtesy of ASAP)

We hope that this lawsuit can help redress some of the harm they’ve experienced and serve as a model for others facing separation and abuse to hold the government accountable,” Tegeler says.

With the increased public attention, ASAP has been raising more money and is working to expand its scope across the country. Part of that effort includes the release of a 2018 guide to representing asylum seekers at the border, to pass on the lessons they’ve learned in assisting hundreds of asylum seekers to other lawyers and advocates.  

It’s important that people remain outraged about family separation but also focus on detention,” Tegeler says. “There is no reason to detain asylum seekers,” she says. “It’s outrageous that this process is being criminalized.”

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911