January 10, 2019 — Highlighting migrants’ stories and advocating on their behalf has long been a priority for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Given the hostile portrayal of migrants in debates around immigration today, it is more important than ever that the human dignity of migrants is upheld and respected.
Beginning during National Migration Week (January 6-12) and continuing over the next several weeks, the Office of Justice and Ecology will feature a series of stories profiling different types of migrants and their advocates. Throughout our work and the work of our partners, we encounter many inspiring people; these are a few of their stories.
As an immigration attorney, Johanna Cochran is acutely aware of the uphill battle she faces when working for her clients. Since becoming an attorney, Ms. Cochran has represented individuals on a number of immigration matters in one of the toughest legal environments for immigration attorneys and their clients – Atlanta, Georgia.
Ms. Cochran’s interest in the law stems from her own experience as an immigrant to this country. Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Ms. Cochran first came to the United States through a work-study program. Through marriage, she was eventually able to obtain permanent status, however, incompetence on the part of her lawyer led Ms. Cochran to take over her own case. “I actually really enjoyed the process and it was what got me thinking about going to law school,” she said. In 2014, Ms. Cochran graduated from Emory School of Law and shortly thereafter began working as an immigration attorney.
Ms. Cochran’s experience trying to adjust her own legal status in the United States demonstrated to her the importance of having competent legal representation in immigration proceedings. “Many people have legitimate claims but lose their cases because they don’t have someone to help them navigate the process,” she notes, “After tax law, immigration law is the most complicated type of law in the United States, so it’s critical to have representation." Despite the difference it can make in the outcome of cases (for example, asylum seekers with representation are five times more likely to win their case than those without representation), the percentage of those without representation remains high for several populations. Ten years ago, the number of unrepresented asylum seekers was 13.6 percent. Today it is 20.6 percent.1 Those in detention have always struggled to obtain legal services, as indicated by their representation rates, which have historically ranged from roughly 10 to 30 percent.2
Without representation, asylum seekers and other immigrants are often left to the mercy of the courts. Such was the case for a Guatemalan woman and her daughter who fled to the United States to seek asylum after the woman’s partner was killed. After passing an initial screening that established her credible fear of returning to Guatemala, the woman appeared before an immigration judge to prove her case. She was unaware of the need to repeat what she had shared during her previous interview, including that she had been raped by the smuggler that brought them to the United States. The hearing lasted no more than five minutes before her case was denied. It was at this point the woman sought legal representation. “She had little understanding of her case,” Ms. Cochran said. “She actually thought her appeal date was the date for another hearing and didn’t know she had been denied.” While the final outcome of the case is still pending, Ms. Cochran was able to win a last-minute ruling that allowed the woman and her daughter to remain in the United States while the case is under continued consideration. Without Ms. Cochran’s legal expertise, both mother and daughter would surely be back in Guatemala by now facing an uncertain future.
Rapid hearings resulting in denials are a defining feature of immigration courts in Atlanta where almost 90 percent of asylum requests are denied. However, this isn’t the case across the country. In New York, around 75 percent of asylum cases are approved.3 Even within cities, much depends on the judge assigned to the case. Ms. Cochran said that wrapping her head around these disparities was one of the biggest surprises she encountered when she first started practicing law. “You’d think the law would be the same everywhere,” she says. “But the truth is so much is left up to the discretion of the judge.”
Non-profits can play an important role in helping immigrants access legal information and representation, says Ms. Cochran. “Know Your Rights” campaigns are often helpful starting points to provide an overview of the legal system. Non-profits can also develop their own network of attorneys who can take cases on a pro-bono basis. Finally, Ms. Cochran encourages advocates to accompany both immigrants and attorneys throughout the legal process by offering continual support. Attorneys and immigrant advocates must work as a team if they are to successfully ensure immigrants have access to quality legal assistance.
1 Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. (2017). TRAC [database]. Retrieved from http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/491/.
2 Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. (2017). TRAC [database]. Retrieved from http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/485/.
3 Meyer, Maureen and Pachico, Elyssa. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Immigration and Central American Asylum Seekers.” Washington Office on Latin America. (2018). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2mdwLe9.