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Law School Chapters Meet with Congressional Offices During IRAP Advocacy Week

From February 16 to 18, 71 students from 21 IRAP law school chapters came together to advocate for the rights and protections of refugees and displaced people on The (virtual) Hill. 

This year, IRAP members focused mainly on three issues in their meetings. The first concerned the introduction and passage of an Afghan Adjustment Act. Following the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans were evacuated to the U.S. and granted entry via humanitarian parole. While humanitarian parole has allowed many Afghans to escape the treacherous situation in Afghanistan, it does not guarantee them long-term security in the United States because humanitarian parole does not create an avenue for a more permanent status. As a result, Afghan parolees will have to apply for either asylum or Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status. However, both programs are severely backlogged. The SIV process currently has over 40,000 cases in the backlog, and the asylum process currently has over 400,000. By passing an Afghan Adjustment Act, Congress would allow certain Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent status after one year and avoid losing their jobs or being deported while their applications for these statuses are pending.

Secondly, IRAP chapter members asked Congressional offices to rebuild the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Currently, USRAP is also severely backlogged, with refugees waiting years or even decades for their cases to proceed. Although the Biden administration has pledged to admit at least 125,000 refugees per year, USRAP currently lacks the infrastructure to do so after years of disinvestment. Furthermore, current ineffective vetting policies have curtailed refugee processing and will need to be revised in order for USRAP to be effective. 

Lastly, IRAP students discussed the damaging effects of 42 U.S.C § 265 (Title 42) and the Remain in Mexico Program. Title 42 gives the administration the ability to deny asylum seekers on dubious public health grounds. It has also been used to expel asylum seekers from the country. The Remain in Mexico policy, on the other hand, forces vulnerable asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, often in dangerous areas, until their asylum hearings. IRAP students specifically requested that Congress urge the Biden administration to repeal 42 U.S.C § 265 and end the Remain in Mexico Program as soon as possible. 

Each meeting consisted of groups of three to five students from various IRAP law school chapters across the United States, most of whom did not know each other prior to the meeting. Therefore, in addition to allowing us to engage in legislative advocacy, Advocacy Week also provided a unique opportunity for us to build community with refugee advocates from different states.

The groups of students prepared beforehand by researching the congressperson, identifying the issues that were most likely to garner support, and splitting up the talking points. The anticipation of the first meeting was intimidating, but those anxieties quickly faded once the meeting began. While not all staffers were familiar with an Afghan Adjustment Act or some of the intricate details of the SIV process, the congressional staffers that we spoke with were attentive and eager to learn more about the issues. Regardless of whether or not the office agreed with our perspective, the conversations that students had with staffers were productive and interesting. Most offices asked follow-up questions, demonstrating their commitment to advancing refugee rights and also their genuine interest in understanding our perspectives. While it was daunting to be put on the spot and asked a specific question, it was impressive how knowledgeable our fellow students were on the issues and the confidence with which they were able to answer. Equally important, students felt comfortable acknowledging when they did not know the answer to a staffer’s question and would offer to follow-up with more information, which staffers greatly appreciated.

As law students, we learn in class about the intricacies of the legislative process, but it is rare to have the opportunity to actually partake in it. Advocacy Week gave us a peek into the inner workings of The Hill. For example, some of the questions that staffers posed — Which legislators are leading on this issue? Are there similar bills that have been introduced by other offices? — shed light on the importance of inter-office collaboration. 

As we move forward in our legal careers, this opportunity will help shape how we address advocacy work in the future. While it is disheartening when staffers are unaware of or sometimes even disinterested in the issues, the reality is that people in positions of power are incredibly busy and often only have time and capacity to pursue issues directly affecting their constituency. That’s why it is all the more important that we advocate for refugees and potential immigrants. Advocacy Week taught us how necessary it is to humanize the issues that we’re passionate about and build relationships with those in the position to support them. Many of us feel personally tied to refugee rights, as we’ve seen the effects of immigration and refugee work play out in our own lives. From grandparents fleeing war to classmates seeking refuge, the decisions that Congressional members make have real impacts on people’s lives. By reminding staffers of that and advocating for those who are not yet constituents, we can ensure that their voices are represented when it comes time for congressional action. 

Advocacy Week was also an important reminder that there is still a lot of work to do to secure refugee rights. Now that IRAP has given us a great number of skills in legislative advocacy and helped us build a network of law students that are equally passionate about creating change, it is our duty to use these lessons to contribute to local, national, and international advocacy efforts throughout our legal careers.

Michael P. Antosiewicz is a 2L at the University of Chicago Law School and is the Director of his UChicago’s IRAP chapter. Michael is also  an editor of the Chicago Journal of International Law. 

Lea Haddad (she/her) is a 1L at the University of Chicago Law School and is a member of UChicago’s IRAP. Lea hopes to pursue a career in international law after graduating from law school and is passionate about refugee rights in the Middle East. 

Daniela Czemerinski (she/her) is a 2L at NYU School of Law and is the co-Outreach Director of NYU’s IRAP chapter. Daniela hopes to work in migrant rights and civil rights after graduating law school.