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Joseph A. Vail Asylum Workshop shares valuable immigration insights in the era of the Biden Administration

Retired Immigration Judge, U.S. Immigration Court and Former Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals Paul Wickham Schmidt discusses growing immigration court backlogs.

Feb. 7, 2022 – More than 350 practitioners attended the annual Joseph A. Vail Asylum Workshop recently. The four-hour virtual event held on Jan. 28 was presented by the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic and co-sponsored by Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. Interfaith Ministries joined this year to shed light on the plight of Afghani refugees who have settled in Houston since the government in Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban takeover.

The goal of the workshop was to provide an update on immigration practices since President Biden took office. For example, while Biden halted the building of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and removed Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) - where asylum seekers must remain on the Mexican side of the border while awaiting U.S. immigration court dates - a federal court order forced MPP to be reinstated. Immigration court backlogs continue to grow with former Board of Immigration Appeals Chairman Paul W. Schmidt predicting them reaching over 2 million by the end of 2022.

The first panel, moderated by Immigration Clinic Director Geoffrey Hoffman, explored the Biden Administration’s focus on Prosecutorial Discretion, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Migratory Protection Protocols (MPP), recent circuit court decisions, Afghan and Haitian case precedents, and immigration court backlogs.

“I hope you are emboldened to take a pro-bono client,” said Hoffman. “You can reach out to any of us on this call and use us as mentors.”

Panelist Magali Candler Suarez, principal at Suarez Candler Law, PLLC warned practitioners that Title 42 - a public health and welfare statue that gives the Center for Disease Control and Prevention the power to decide whether something like Covid-19 in a foreign country poses a serious danger of spreading in the U.S. - was being applied to Haitians in a racist manner.

“Many Haitians are being turned back at the border,” said Candler Suarez. “They are being denied the right to apply for asylum.”

The second panel, moderated by Parker Sheffy, a clinical teaching fellow at the Immigration Clinic, was a refresher on asylum, withholding of removal and CAT. Panelist Elizabeth Mendoza from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which supports immigration attorneys in this work, spoke about challenges because of newly appointed immigration judges and evolving Covid practices.

“Unfortunately, things are in flux this month,” said Mendoza. “It’s not out of the ordinary to be given conflicting information.”

Well known former U.S. immigration judge, Jeffrey S. Chase, was the final panelist in this group and focused on the future of asylum in the U.S. “The Biden Administration issued a paper on climate change and migration,” said Chase. “[What] they were really talking about [though was] asylum and how climate change will impact that.”

A third panel offered insights on the use of experts in removal proceedings. UH Law Center Professor Rosemary Vega moderated the discussion which ranged from psychological experts to country experts and where to find them.

“The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies has a giant list of experts on many topics,” said panelist and UH Law Professor Lucas Aisenberg. “It’s the first place I go to when I’m working on a case.”

The workshop wrapped up with speakers from Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston explaining what it is like to be a refugee from Afghanistan and how hard it has been to meet the needs of Afghan refugees that have arrived in the last year.

“Two years ago, we resettled 407 Afghan refugees,” said Martin B. Cominsky, president, and CEO of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. “Since September 2021, we have resettled 11,081 refugees.” He implored practitioners on the call to help in any way they can.

The Joseph A. Vail Asylum Workshop has been held annually since 2014 in memory of the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic’s founder. Since the clinic’s inception in 1999, it has become one of the largest in the nation, specializing in handling asylum applications for victims of torture and persecution, representing victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and crime, and helping those fleeing civil war, genocide, or political repression. The clinic has served over 2,000 individuals who otherwise could not afford legal services.

For a full list of speakers at this year’s event, click here.

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