a conversation with McGowan on immigration law division

Amelia McGowan is senior attorney over the immigration law division with the Mississippi Center for Justice. McGowan helped found the division about a year ago. Prior to joining the center, she served as program director for the Migrant Support Center for Catholic Charities Jackson. McGowan is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and the Tulane University School of Law.

Why did you start the immigration division at the Center for Justice?

“One of the things that I am interested in doing is increasing pro bono legal services for Mississippi immigrants in need, particularly in asylum cases. People who are seeking asylum, at the beginning at least, don’t have authorization to work in the United States. Also, their cases are very time and labor-intensive. Because the government doesn’t provide them with an attorney, and because the process (to seek asylum) is so complicated, we saw this as a real area of need in the state.”

Who are your clients?

“Our clients have really ranged. We represent a number of children, children facing the removal process alone. We represent a few families. We also represent some individual adults. We have represented retirees who are seeking asylum. We’ve represented a pastor seeking asylum, engineers seeking asylum … they really run the gamut in age and socio-economic status.”

How many cases has your office taken on?

“I don’t have a firm number. A lot of the cases take a long time, two or three years depending on the immigration court. I’ve had some cases that have been lingering for two years. Part of the issue is finding interpreters, say someone speaks indigenous Guatemalan languages. There may be just one or two interpreters (who speak those languages) in the country. Those cases have to be reset because no interpreters were available.”

Do you have to turn away any cases?

“We do, primarily because of the time commitment that an asylum case takes. Right now, our division has only two attorneys. We’re actively working with area firms, firms of all sizes, to train Mississippi attorneys in taking on cases with us. We provide training and mentoring and guide the attorney through the process. We’ve had some successes with that, and it helps us raise our capacity and awareness about asylum cases through the Mississippi Bar.”

How many volunteers do you have working cases now?

“We’ve got 15 attorneys who have helped us recently or are helping us now.”

We’ve heard the term tossed around a good bit in recent years. What exactly is asylum?

“Most people, when they think of it, they think political persecution. It’s a form of protection enshrined in U.S. law based on the 1967 U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Specifically, it’s for people who have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on some protected grounds – race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

What type of asylum cases have you taken on?

“One of the most interesting, and the longest case I’ve had going on, is one where we represent a Christian pastor who was fleeing Boko Haram, who was persecuting him for his Evangelical work in Nigeria. We represented a number of Venezuelan professionals who opposed the Chavez and Maduro regimes, several victims of child abuse from Honduras and Guatemala, a Guatemalan indigenous activist who was persecuted for political opinions, a Guatemalan teacher who was being persecuted for her political opinions, a Cuban political activist, a Nigerian political activist. Then, we had a client from Ghana who was being persecuted for his schizophrenia. He was being ostracized.”

What have been the results in those cases?

“For the client who had schizophrenia, we won on appeal. All the others I mentioned, we have won either at immigration court or in the asylum office. The exception is the Nigerian pastor. His case is currently on appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court. For the Cuban dissident, his case is on appeal before the Fifth Circuit. The Nigerian case was brought over (with me) from Catholic Charities.”

What is the process someone has to go through to seek asylum?

“A couple of ways. Asylum law says you have to be physically present in the U.S. seeking asylum, regardless of (immigration) status. The law protects people who enter in any way. A lot of times in the news, you see people seeking asylum at the border. If they go to the border and express to a (border) officer that they’re seeking asylum, they will transfer that person to do an interview with an asylum officer. If that officer determines the individual might have a claim under the (law), they will refer them to immigration court, and they will be able to argue before an immigration judge.

“If someone comes on a tourist visa or student visa, or otherwise is not apprehended at the border, they can seek what is called ‘affirmative asylum’ with an asylum office. If that office approves the case, they have asylum. If the office does not, they send your file to the immigration court, and you have a chance to make your case in front of a judge. Either way, if you don’t win in front of a judge, usually you’ll have to leave the country.”

But these individuals can appeal to higher court, right?

“They can. Let’s say you don’t win and the judge orders you removed.  You have the right to appeal that decision. You have to appeal within 30 days to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is a nationwide appellant body that is under the Justice Department. If they rule against you, you can appeal to the federal circuit court.”

Where is the asylum office in Mississippi?

“There are none in Mississippi, but they send people in Mississippi to the New Orleans asylum office, which is in Metairie. There are two immigration courts for people living in Mississippi. They’re either sent to Memphis or New Orleans.”

How hard is it to get asylum?

“It depends on where you are. For example, there is an immigration judge in Oakdale, La., who has a 100 percent denial rate since 2016. Other courts may have a 40 percent, 30 percent approval rate.”

Do a lot of cases in Mississippi go to the Oakdale judge?

“Yes; that particular court hears detained cases. Many people who are arrested in Mississippi and sent to immigration detention centers will go to the facility under the jurisdiction of Oakdale.”

How many of the Oakdale judge’s decisions have been overturned?

“I don’t know. That’s a really good question.”

Also, how do your clients find you?

“Often its word of mouth. I teach the immigration clinic at MC Law School. Some people find out about us through that. Others find us when we do outreach events, when we do presentations on immigration. A huge source of our client referrals come from (people we help). They refer us.”

Are the services free of charge?

“Yes.”

How is the immigration division funded?

“Primarily through donations (from) private foundations or individuals.”

By the way, when will the case on the Nigerian pastor be decided?

“It could be any day now. He’s actually out. He was detained for five years. We worked with the counsel in Atlanta, who helped him get out on habeas (corpus). He is out and doing well. We’re just waiting for the court to rule on that one.”

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