IN OUR CORNER: Highlighting stories around access to justice and the A2J Initiative at Fordham Law School
bus with migrants at the Port Authority bus terminal
A busload of migrants who had been detained at the Texas border arrives at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images)
Feerick Center Executive Director Dora Galacatos with staff, student volunteers, and representatives
Feerick Center Executive Director Dora Galacatos ’96 (front row at left) is joined by Feerick Center staff, student volunteers, and representatives of partner organizations at a limited legal services clinic for asylum seekers held at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.
Hope Amid Crisis typography

Hope Amid Crisis

Fordham Law Steps Up to Help Migrants Find a Better Life
As refugees poured into New York City last fall and winter, Fordham Law faculty, students, and alumni sprang into action, providing desperately needed assistance, legal and otherwise, to asylum seekers.
By Julia Califano
They were a long way from home. But the migrants who gathered at Fordham University’s McShane Campus Center at Rose Hill on a crisp November morning knew how lucky they were to be there. They had come from West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, some by way of the Darien Gap—a treacherous and lawless crossing through the jungles of Panama and Colombia. Miraculously, they had made it to the U.S. southern border, and then to New York City.

Thanks to a limited legal services clinic hosted by Fordham Law’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, in partnership with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), they were about to start the long and complex process of seeking asylum in the United States.

More than 35 volunteers—including students, faculty, and alumni from Fordham Law, as well as students from Fordham University—came to the Rose Hill campus to help the migrants complete their applications for asylum. Each new arrival was paired with a volunteer (often a law student) and, in some cases, a translator. The volunteers listened to their stories and carefully filled out their I-589s, the forms used to apply for asylum in the United States and for withholding of removal (formerly called “withholding of deportation”). Supervising attorneys from NYLAG then reviewed each application to make sure each client had the best chance of future success—a critical last step at this stage in the process.

“It could be several years before they have a hearing,” explains Emerson Argueta ’18, associate director of the Feerick Center, which promotes the rights of marginalized and low-income New Yorkers and individuals seeking humanitarian relief. “They are telling us details about the worst experiences of their lives. If they say five men came into my house and did X, Y, Z to my family, and two years down the line, at trial, they say four men, that is something the government prosecutors can easily argue against the client. It puts them in a difficult position. There’s no guarantee they will have an attorney with them at their trial, so a lot of the work [we do] is to prevent potential pitfalls down the line.”

two women sitting together and looking at a laptop
A woman meets with a volunteer for a consultation on completing her asylum application.
Indeed, each volunteer is required to undergo a comprehensive training session via Zoom before they can serve as preparers at NYLAG’s asylum pro se assistance clinics, which are held monthly at different sites throughout the city. NYLAG is doing this work as part of the Pro Se Plus Project (PSPP), an initiative of several nonprofits in response to the needs of newly arrived migrants.

“We feel very privileged to collaborate with the extraordinary immigration experts at New York Legal Assistance Group,” says Dora Galacatos ’96, executive director of the Feerick Center. “We are also deeply grateful to our volunteers. This limited-scope legal service can be challenging and draining, but it is also rewarding to know that our collective efforts have the potential to be life-changing.”

The Clock Is Ticking

Since the spring of 2022, New York City has been inundated by a wave of migrants and asylum seekers—many fleeing political, religious, ethnic, and gender-based persecution at home. Economic insecurity, political upheaval, violence, and climate change are driving record numbers of migrants from their home countries.

Asylum seekers have one year to file their asylum claims. Unless they’ve been granted humanitarian parole (a discretionary grant of temporary permission to enter the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons), migrants must wait five months after filing their I-589s to apply for work authorization—another crucial milestone. Once they have working papers, the migrants can work legally in the city, or anywhere else in the United States.

If they miss the one-year asylum application deadline, however, the refugees risk joining a much more perilous classification of immigrant: the undocumented. At that point, “they can either turn themselves in to be deported or go into the shadows, and we know there are a host of risks attached to that, including labor abuses and general fear in the community, and many other issues,” says Argueta.

It’s a fate that Fordham Law, other schools, and legal service agencies in the city are working fast and furiously to help avoid. Still, Argueta fears that many recent arrivals may not make the deadline. “There are just not enough service providers to meet the needs of the many thousands of asylum seekers that have arrived in New York City,” he warns. “It’s a big problem, but I am eternally optimistic, especially when I see the amount of interest among law students, soon-to-be-attorneys, to get involved in this work.”

It All Began with an Email

Fordham Law’s recent push to help migrants in the city began in August 2023 when the Law School’s Public Interest Resource Center (PIRC), in conjunction with the Feerick Center, sent an email to all law students listing various ways they could get involved in helping recent arrivals to New York City. Interested students could fill out a Google form.

“Within, honestly, moments we had an enormous amount of responses, and we’re now at 56 law students,” says PIRC Assistant Dean Leah Horowitz ’06. “That may not sound crazy, but law students are really busy and there is a ton going on, and these are impressive numbers from what we see in terms of engagements.”

A similar letter then went out to undergraduates and graduate students in the wider Fordham University community. A total of 280 students expressed interest in joining the effort. “That really said a lot to me about the fact that people are aware of what’s going on, and they care and want to contribute,” Horowitz adds.

Since those emails went out, students have been stepping up to assist migrants on multiple fronts.

In addition to NYLAG’s monthly asylum application clinics, Law School and other Fordham students have regularly attended Key to the City Resource Fairs, which are co-hosted by NYLAG and the New York Immigration Coalition. These events are designed to help immigrants learn about their rights and options in the U.S. legal system, get essential advice, and receive referrals to other services.

The resource fairs also double as initial screening intakes for NYLAG. Law students who attended Key to the City events interviewed clients and filled out intake forms to help determine if each client had a case for asylum. This is an essential first step before they can attend an asylum application clinic. The migrants who come to asylum application clinics sponsored by the Feerick Center and NYLAG are prescreened, meaning they have a potentially viable claim for asylum.

Students also have stepped up to organize their own initiatives. The Immigration Advocacy Project (IAP), a student group at the Law School, for example, has teamed up with Central American Legal Assistance (CALA), an organization that primarily serves Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America and is also part of the PSPP.

“We try to get a few Fordham Law students to go to every CALA clinic,” says Sarya Baladi ’25, who serves as the IAP’s outreach and programming coordinator. “They all focus on helping people file their initial asylum claim to make that one-year deadline. I think it’s a really great way for a student to get tangible legal experience and learn a bit more about what’s happening in New York City and the struggles of people who recently arrived. Applying for asylum doesn’t guarantee permanent immigration status, but it is a first step toward serving this population that is really in need.” In addition to sponsoring asylum clinics, CALA now also offers clinics for Venezuelans applying for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that allows migrants whose home countries are considered unsafe the right to live and work in the United States for a temporary, but extendable, period of time.

It’s a big problem, but I am eternally optimistic, especially when I see the amount of interest among law students, soon-to-be-attorneys, to get involved in this work.
Emerson Argueta headshot
Emerson Argueta ’18
Associate director of the Feerick Center for Social Justice

Harrowing Stories, Glimmers of Hope

Adjunct Law Professor Theresa Mohan ’90, who volunteered at the Rose Hill clinic, says she won’t soon forget the refugee she was paired with that day. Her client, a woman from a rural area of Honduras, had been physically and sexually abused by her father, then by her husband. After a particularly brutal attack by her husband, she called the police, but the authorities refused to arrest him. When she was finally able to get free of her husband, she began selling food to tourists from her home to support her five children. Then gangs started regularly showing up at her door, demanding she pay them 50 U.S. dollars a month or they would kill her. She notified the police, but again, they refused to help.

“This woman was indigenous, and the police had no interest in protecting her as a woman, and especially as an indigenous woman,” explains Mohan, who spent more than 20 years practicing corporate law before stepping down two years ago to focus on her family and pro bono legal work, primarily in the area of immigration and asylum. “The difficulty with these cases is you have to have state action or state nonaction in order to get asylum, and in this case, the fact that the police did nothing to protect her from her husband or these gangs is also a very important element. She had police reports for both incidents, which is great from an evidentiary perspective. It’s horrible that she had to experience any of this but good that she had that.”

While those opposed to the recent arrivals often cast immigrants as a drain on government assistance and public resources, that’s far from what LL.M. student Thanina Haddadi ’25 witnessed throughout her volunteer experiences this past fall. “I don’t think there is a person in this world who is willing to leave their family, their friends, their home country, everything, just because they want to,” she says. “I hear about their journeys from their country to the United States, how they had to face danger, people beating them up. They accepted it because they know there is no life anymore in their home country.”

Her clients often tell her about the English classes they are taking; many have asked her how to register for college. “This shows how willing they are. How hardworking they are. They just want a chance to build their lives again and work hard and have the opportunity to build their future and to have a life.” An immigrant herself, Haddadi worked as an immigration lawyer in Algeria before coming to the United States. She has her green card and is studying at Fordham so she can practice immigration law in this country.

students standing together in front of a mural at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and Annunciation House
As a part of the Feerick Center Immigrant Justice Project, students spent a week in January 2024 in El Paso, Texas, partnering with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and Annunciation House to assist detained migrants and conduct Know-Your-Rights information sessions.

A Long History of Immigration Advocacy

Since 2012, the Feerick Center has been pursuing access to justice for immigrants on multiple fronts as part of its Immigrant Justice Project. “The Feerick Center is deeply privileged to collaborate with partners at the Law School and throughout the University to bring legal services and other assistance to new New Yorkers in our communities and city,” says Galacatos. “Our collective efforts embody the Law School’s motto to work ‘In the Service of Others,’ and we thank all of our volunteers for joining us in meeting this moment—the services provided can truly make a world of difference.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Feerick Center organized service trips through Proyecto Dilley (formerly known as the Dilley Pro Bono Project) to Dilley, Texas. That initiative involved leading regular trips of students, alumni, and other volunteers to the nation’s largest family detention center on the U.S.-Mexican border, where volunteers spent a week providing limited-scope assistance to asylum-seeking women detained with their children.

It was one of these service trips that inspired Argueta, whose family emigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the early ’90s, to become an immigration lawyer. “I went to Dilley during the spring of my first year at Fordham Law, and I thought, I have the language, the cultural competency skill set. I can’t in good conscience ignore this need because, to me, this is one of the civil rights issues of our time,” he explains. Argueta practiced immigration law for five years before taking his current post at the Law School.

New Problems Call for New Solutions

The Feerick Center typically organizes five service trips a year to the southern border—three with students and two with alumni. Since women and children are no longer detained in Dilley on a large scale, Fordham’s teams now travel directly to the border in El Paso, Texas, to do much of the same work they are doing in New York City—helping new arrivals apply for asylum. “The difference is that, at the border, the focus is on people who are detained, either because they don’t have family or other receiving communities to go to, they have criminal records, or they just had bad luck of the draw,” Argueta explains. “They are in regular removal proceedings, but they need help filling out their asylum applications.”

As the immigration landscape evolves, the Feerick Center is quick to pivot. Last August, a scheduling conflict meant the Center would not be able to take students to the border. At the same time, needs were mounting locally. So, the Center instead organized a student service week at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey. The clients were single men from Egypt and Mauritania. The men from Egypt were seeking asylum based on religious persecution in Egypt. The Mauritanian men were escaping slavery, which still exists in their country. That service trip was organized in partnership with American Friends Service Committee, an immigration legal services provider in New Jersey.

“We started out doing their asylum applications but then quickly realized how badly they were doing from a mental health perspective, having been detained for nearly a month,” says Argueta. The group quickly broadened their mission to include trying to get these men out of detention as soon as possible. The students gathered documents the detainees needed to help with release, contacted their families, and reached out to nonprofits that help detainees pay their bond. “We ended the week dropping off one of the clients we were serving at Newark Airport so he could go to his family in Tennessee,” he recalls. “That is the kind of powerful and inspiring experience that I hope the students carry on and that compels them to do more of this pro bono work in their careers.”