By Ary Hansen and Stephanie Bauer
From February 16–19, IRAP hosted its fourth annual Advocacy Week, bringing 48 students from 19 law school chapters to meet with members of Congress and advocate for the rights and protections of refugees and displaced people.
This year’s Advocacy Week looked a little different. While in past years students lobbied lawmakers in person in Washington D.C., due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of this year’s meetings took place virtually. Over the course of three days, students met with 44 congressional staffers over video or conference calls, with offices spanning 23 states and Washington D.C. While the virtual format presented new challenges, it also meant greater accessibility for students across the country, allowing us to attend meetings around our class schedules and eliminating out-of-pocket costs.
We worked together in groups of three to four, teaming up with our fellow constituents who were often members of other IRAP chapters. It was fun connecting with members from other chapters via Zoom. Some teams did “dress rehearsals” for meetings and had fun calming each other’s anxiety and learning from one another, while others planned meetings over email and Google Docs. It was amazing to see everyone in action during the actual meetings—we have so many incredible advocates for refugee rights, and this week was a powerful, uplifting reminder of the progress we can make together.
This year, students focused on advocating for additional Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), as well as expansions of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The SIV program was created by Congress to provide a pathway to safety for Iraqis and Afghans who assisted the U.S. mission in their countries and came under threat as a result of that service. These allies provided critically needed linguistic support and cultural competency, helping U.S. troops navigate unfamiliar landscapes in which situational awareness and reliable intelligence often meant the difference between life and death. Both Republicans and Democrats recognize the value of this visa program and understand that if the United States does not keep its promises, other locals won’t want to help the U.S. military in the future, putting troops in unnecessary danger. Students also discussed the major cuts the Trump administration made to USRAP, and the power Congress has to prevent future drastic cuts. Supporting refugee admissions is critical for the United States to reassert global leadership in refugee resettlement. Students also advocated for systemic reforms, especially around the Trump administration’s so-called “extreme vetting” policies, utilized to grind refugee processing to a halt, and targeting refugees from Muslim-majority countries.
Meeting directly with congressional staffers allowed students to see how progress is made at the national level and to sharpen strategies for future action. Lawmakers varied greatly in their approaches to refugee protection, so part of our task was to determine how best to frame these issues to each office. Some view immigration and refugee policy as domestic and focus on a national security component, while some focus on these policies as foreign affairs issues, looking at the factors that drive refugees to come here. One staffer took significant time out of his day to talk to students about policy and messaging in this area. His recommendations included: practice ahead of time so you can guide the conversation to your priorities, and approach policy knowing we’re on the right side. Those are two things we’ll certainly keep in mind moving forward.
It was also interesting to see how the actions of other lawmakers affect one another. For example, some of the offices we talked to seemed very sensitive to how similarly-oriented colleagues voted, or to which of their colleagues cosponsored bills. Another recommended focusing the bulk of our efforts on offices that are overall less friendly to refugees and displaced people. One office emphasized the importance of the President’s consultation with Congress before taking action. Getting this inside look into the dynamics among members of Congress and branches of government helped us think big picture about strategy and will definitely inform our advocacy going forward.
While we’ll both be graduating this year, we’ll carry these lessons with us in our future activism. For future Advocacy Days, or for anyone hoping to advocate with lawmakers, we found these strategies to be helpful: First, remember that elected officials and their staffers are all real people. Have a conversation with them. Teach them about an issue you care about and they’ll teach you about their office’s approach to the issue. While their ideas may differ, they’re passionate about making the United States a better place, just like you. Second, if they’re not on board with your objectives, try to find the small areas of agreement and work from there. You can build the relationship and try to show them why they should support your other goals, too. And finally, staffers are handling a huge number of important issues every day, so it really helps to attach real people and their stories to the policy asks we make. For confidentiality reasons, we didn’t share details from our own clients’ cases, but some students were able to attest to the harm their clients had suffered from these exclusionary policies that we’re trying to roll back. Staffers were really interested and engaged, and some said that client profiles would be helpful. Our clients are at the heart of all we do, so bringing it back to them can help everyone get on the same page.
All in all, Advocacy Week was an incredible opportunity to build skills in legislative advocacy and connect with chapter members from across the United States. We left with a renewed sense of hope for the future of refugee rights, even with so much work ahead of us. Our chapter members are already looking forward to next year, and in the meantime, we’ll be putting our newfound skills to work to advocate for refugees and displaced people at the local, state, and national levels.
Ary Hansen is a 3L at UCLA School of Law, where she is Chapter Director for the IRAP chapter at UCLA Law. She is from Chicago, IL, and is looking forward to defending the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and other displaced people after graduation.
Stephanie Bauer is a 3L at Emory University School of Law, where she is co-President for the IRAP Chapter at Emory Law. She is from Sudbury, MA, but moved south to escape the cold. After graduation, she plans to go into indigent criminal defense.
For more insights into #IRAPAdvocacyWeek2021, watch our Instagram highlight, and check out the map below to see the participating IRAP chapters (purple) and states represented by the legislators they met with (orange)!