Sept. 2, 2022 – Dozens of lawyers have spent part of this summer preparing asylum applications for Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S after the fall of the Afghan government in August 2021.
This is a short profile of one team of four attorneys:
Kendall Harrison and
Linda Schmidt at Godfrey & Kahn S.C. in Madison, and Chester (“Chet”) Isaacson and Megan McKenzie in the legal department at American Family Insurance.
How did they get involved with this project?
A chance encounter at the gym earlier this year led to a remarkable collaboration between lawyers from Godfrey & Kahn and the legal department at American Family Insurance.
Schmidt recalled that after a swim workout, she mentioned to Dan Seymour – an assistant general counsel at American Family – that she and many other lawyers at Godfrey & Kahn were going to be working on Afghan asylum applications over the summer and wondered whether anyone at the company would also be interested.
Linda Schmidt, Godfrey & Kahn S.C. in Madison, is one of dozens of lawyers who helped prepare asylum applications for Afghan evacuees this summer.
Seymour put out a call for volunteers to the legal department. Isaacson and McKenzie were two of the American Family lawyers who joined Harrison and Schmidt in answering the call for volunteers issued by the Refugee & Immigration Services program at Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Had they ever done anything like this before?
During law school, Schmidt interned with Catholic Charities in New York working on asylum cases, so she had some familiarity with the process. But this area of practice was new to the others. All four of them are experienced litigators, not immigration attorneys.
Who are they helping?
They are representing two former Afghan Army soldiers. One client is a former Afghan National Army (ANA) officer whose service included advanced training in the U.S.
The other was a driver for the Afghan Army. Because they served in the ANA and worked to support U.S. forces, “they have received death threats from the Taliban,” said Harrison. Although the legal teams didn’t know it at first, it turned out that the two men are brothers, so the teams now coordinate their efforts.
Luckily, both men received vital relocation support from an American officer who served with them in Afghanistan. Both men are now working full time in Wisconsin to support themselves and have rented an apartment.
Their wives and children along with another family member who served in the ANA remain at risk in Afghanistan. Many of their ANA friends and colleagues who did not make it out of the country have been detained, tortured and even killed by the Taliban.
What’s the greatest challenge they’ve faced?
They all agreed that it’s the language barrier that poses the biggest challenge, even more than the intricacies of immigration law and procedure.
“Everything takes more time” said Isaacson, because every interaction requires a translator as they assemble the factual case to support their client’s application.
There is also the potential for misunderstanding as questions and answers are translated. Many translators are refugees or asylum applicants themselves and are volunteering their time outside of work hours.
What kind of support have they received?
They’ve relied heavily on the advice and expertise of immigration specialists at Catholic Charities and other organizations. They all reported that Ben Harville at Catholic Charities in Milwaukee has been a great resource. He has organized weekly group conferences with the volunteers to pass along legal updates and advice.
Kendall Harrison, Godfrey & Kahn S.C. in Madison, is among more than 150 lawyers who have answered the call for volunteers to help Afghan evacuees.
What message do they have for other lawyers who may be thinking of volunteering?
As Schmidt noted, their work “means the difference between life and death” for their clients, so it has been especially rewarding.
“We’re helping people who have done right by the U.S.,” Harrison added. “Even if it has been a long time or you’ve never done pro bono work, you can help,” said Isaacson.
A Swift Volunteer Recruitment Effort
Over 8 days in August 2021, the U.S. led an effort to evacuate as many Afghans as possible before American troops withdrew after the collapse of the Afghan government.
Of the 124,000 Afghans who were evacuated, over 76,000 were sent to the U.S. After processing at locations across the country, they began the resettlement process.
Roughly 900 Afghan evacuees were eventually resettled in Wisconsin with help from a statewide network of refugee assistance organizations.
Under the rules that apply to most Afghan evacuees, they have to apply for asylum or some other immigration status within 12 months of arriving in the U.S.
Everyone quickly realized that it would take an unprecedented effort to help so many people in such a short amount of time. There are only a small number of full-time immigration attorneys and paralegals in Wisconsin, not enough to handle such a surge.
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Pro Bono Program worked with the immigration assistance program run by the Catholic Charities of the Milwaukee Archdiocese to launch a volunteer recruitment effort.
Over 150 lawyers answered the call for volunteers and nearly 100 have been matched with Afghan clients so far. Between the full-time immigration bar and volunteers any Afghan who needs legal assistance can be matched with a free attorney.