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CLINIC Conference Highlights Importance of the Refugee Act’s 30th Anniversary
By: Jennie Guilfoyle
Thirty years ago Congress passed the landmark Refugee Act of 1980, which established special protections for individuals forced to flee their native countries. March 15, 2010 marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of this bill that has offered a safe haven in the United States to millions who have fled persecution. In America’s long history of welcoming immigrants, refugees -- who have fled war, forcible displacement, and persecution -- have a special place. The Catholic Church acknowledges and advocates for special protections for refugees and asylum seekers, recognizing that “each person has a right to asylum in situations of great peril.”
In keeping with this teaching, CLINIC has long had a commitment to providing support to refugees, asylum seekers, and asylees with programs such as the National Asylee Information and Referral Line and the new National Pro Bono Project for Children, as well as trainings on immigration issues relating to refugees and asylees. Days before this year’s 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act, CLINIC co-sponsored the fourth conference on Effective Representation of Asylees and Refugees in Omaha, NE. With the help of nine co-sponsoring agencies, CLINIC put together our largest-yet conference on legal representation of refugees and asylees.
Several CLINIC staff members offered workshops. We were also very fortunate to have the participation of numerous officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of State, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The conference was an unprecedented opportunity for advocates to meet in person many of the officials who adjudicate their clients’ cases. “I think one of the best things about the conference was the significant participation of staff from the Nebraska Service Center (NSC) and other government agencies. Not only did it give conference attendees a chance to ask the government questions about the processing of their cases, but it also allowed the NSC, Asylum Division and Refugee Corps to hear about the problems advocates encounter in assisting clients and the issues that are important to those in the field,” said CLINIC Training and Support Attorney Kristina Karpinski.
This year’s conference brought together 109 advocates from 25 different states -- seasoned practitioners along with people new to immigration work, immigration attorneys along with accredited representatives and non-accredited immigration legal workers. During our three days in Omaha, people got a chance to meet advocates from other programs. Most attendees stayed in the same hotel, and had breakfast and lunch together. The conference took place at Creighton University Law School, which kindly let us use their space; we had room for meals, for workshops and plenary sessions, for mingling and networking. For us as the organizers it was wonderful to see advocates forging connections with each other and interacting closely with government officials. It was inspiring, too – as one participant put it, “it was such an uplifting feeling to be around so many people focused on improving the lives of refugees and asylees.”
The conference ended with a tour of the Nebraska Service Center – which is housed in two separate buildings. For both the NSC employees and the advocates on the tour it was an invaluable experience. Asylee and refugee applications are usually adjudicated solely based on paper applications, with no in-person communication between the adjudicators and the advocates and applicants. We toured the file rooms; the mail rooms; the work stations of contract employees who first handle applications; and saw the many desks where adjudicators work on cases. The NSC employees were extremely welcoming, and made time to show us around both facilities and answer many questions from tour participants. We got the sense that they were excited to meet with advocates, just as we were excited to meet them.
CLINIC was proud to work on this important conference, and we look forward to future trainings and conferences on behalf of asylees and refugees.
Jennie Guilfoyle is a Training and Legal Support Attorney for CLINIC.
 Who are My Brothers & Sisters? Reflections on Understanding and Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees. U.S. Catholic Conference. 1996 p. 29.
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