The worst part of representing asylum-seekers in the U.S. legal system is the wait. “It’s awful,” says Jenny Rizzo, who provided pro bono legal representation to refugees in Buffalo, New York, and now serves as executive director of The Pro Bono Project in New Orleans.
The system is so overburdened that clients who’ve filed all the proper paperwork can wait up to three years to see a judge and plead for asylum. Meanwhile, they’re terrified that their families back home will be killed. “There are clients who can’t possibly understand why the system would take that long. There are clients who despair,” Rizzo says.
Our judicial system is a good system. It has the right values of due process and fairness and equity. But we are not funding the system to be able to dole out those values,
For a refugee to seek asylum, they must prove they are at risk of persecution in their home country due to their ethnicity, religion, political ideology, or social group. People fleeing general violence and chaos in specific countries can apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) if they are already in the United States, but, as the name implies, this designation provides no path to a green card or citizenship, and only immigrants from certain countries are eligible. That means someone who is from Syria, which is mired in war, or who is from a Central American country beset with drug-related violence, might remain in limbo for years while they wait for a decision on their asylum claim.
Rizzo became an attorney after a decade in journalism. She covered the aftermath of hurricanes in Florida, and she was struck by the vulnerability of the immigrant population. “They’re not from here, they don’t know our system, they don’t speak the language,” she says. She decided to go to law school so that instead of just telling people’s stories, she could try to change them. “I felt that I could do more with a law degree.”
“As a journalist, the stories that really impacted me the most were the ones where you could just see that there was a policy that was just screwing things up,” Rizzo says. The plight of refugees from countries in chaos is definitely one of those situations. The wait for a hearing can be so long that it takes a real toll, not just on the clients, but on the people representing them. “There’s a high burnout among immigration lawyers, because you’re just a constant deliverer of bad news,” she says. “It’s why I would go to citizenship ceremonies as often as possible, because it’s the end of the rainbow, it’s the happy ending. You need those things to sustain you.”
“Our judicial system is a good system. It has the right values of due process and fairness and equity. But we are not funding the system to be able to dole out those values,” Rizzo says. She believes we need more immigration judges to cut the wait times for refugees seeking asylum. “The system is a good one on paper. It just needs an overhaul and an update.