Getting My Feet Wet Before We All Do. Literally

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By: Dan Piersa

When I was looking for internship opportunities for this summer, I was almost exclusively looking for any chance to learn about environmental law. My primary interest in law school is to hopefully use my education to do everything that I can to fight against climate change. I am not interested in any other facet of the law, other than where they may touch upon environmental policy and action.

To this end, I wanted to try to make progress on this path as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I could not find any local opportunities that gelled with this goal. Available internships would have taken me to Philadelphia or New York, and I have too much going on here in Buffalo to make such a move even for a few weeks. Therefore, I committed myself to making the most compassionate use of my time this summer. This led me to apply to and, thankfully, be accepted at Journey’s End Refugee Services (JERS). I was fortunate to receive financial support through the Catalyst Public Service Fellowship Program through The New York Bar Foundation to make my experience possible.

During my internship, I have worked mostly within the narrow confines of asylum applications and associated documents. This narrow focus has been tremendously educational and helpful to my professional growth. Most of my work has been asking asylum seekers questions on their asylum applications, recording their answers, and reading these answers back to them for approval. Throughout this process, many clarifying questions are needed. My repetition with this specific form with several different people over the summer helped make me more thoughtful and methodical in my questioning so that I could extract the pertinent details of the clients’ stories. As I realized that I was becoming more confident with this process and getting better, I could not help but think of advice given by Professor James Gardner in our Constitutional Law class this past spring. Professor Gardner would often emphasize that a good lawyer is methodical, focused, and detail-oriented. Effective lawyering can be boring but if one sticks to the plan, success will result more often than failure. Sadly, the underlying subject material that asylum seekers must give answers about is anything but boring, but the process requires methodical work. Together, clients and JERS crafted detailed and focused answers that hopefully will help their asylum cases down the line.

IMG_6451Since I began writing my honors thesis at Canisius in 2016, I have read many articles and books about climate change. The warning is given by countless experts in multiple fields that climate change will induce a refugee crisis like nothing the world has ever seen. As United Nations experts explain, the crisis will be for many reasons: food and water shortages; war waged over access to water; more severe and frequent natural disasters; rising temperatures; barren oceans; and rising sea levels, among other disasters caused be ecological collapse. This fact helped inform my decision to apply to JERS. Someday, there will be an unprecedented need for legal aid regarding climate refugees. I thought that it would be beneficial to get my feet wet with similar work as soon as possible. This intersection between environmental law and immigration law cannot be understated. It is important that lawyers are ready so that we can help as many people as possible when the time comes.

I am in law school to try to help stave off the worst of climate change, and to help people, animals, plants, and ecosystems that will undoubtedly be impacted along the way. Generally, I try my best to be an optimistic person. However, there is nothing in our collective history or in our current socio-political atmosphere that indicates we will succeed against climate change. Climate change and its potential results have been discussed and feared by those informed by science for decades. Humanity has missed every exit ramp so far. So we must be prepared to fail, and part of that preparation is preparing for hundreds of millions, if not billions, displaced persons. The task seems overwhelming, but it is the least we can do to try to rise to the challenge. I won’t ever stop trying … and I won’t ever stop caring.

To this end, it has been my pleasure to continue to volunteer with JERS even though I finished my official hours weeks ago. I told my supervising attorney that if there was anything I could do to still help, I would be available. She assigned me one more person to help fill out their asylum application. I finished my hours on July 24th, and I have been helping this person with their application for two hours almost every weekday since. I appreciate my supervising attorney and JERS for having me this summer and for letting me stay on and continue to help. I am grateful for the opportunity to help one more person this summer.

I have never felt more appreciated than when I finish a phone call with an asylum seeker. They are always so effusive in their thanks. They think that I am doing so much to help them just by being available to listen to and record their stories as applicable to the application questions. I try my best to tell them that, after all they’ve been through, it is the least I can do. It is the least that our profession can do, to help those amongst us that need it most. Access to legal aid makes a significant difference in whether or not an asylum seeker will be successful. When asylum seekers tackle this process by themselves, they are only granted asylum about 10 percent of the time. With legal aid, the experts at TRAC demonstrate chances of success rise to 48%. Lawyers alone have this incredible opportunity to help these people who need us so desperately.

Someday, I hope to have the opportunity to affect real change through the law, for environmental relief, and for justice. I think there are many worthwhile endeavors in the legal profession but this summer experience showed me that none are more worthwhile than helping those seeking asylum.

Piersa DanielName: Dan Piersa, ’22

Name of Fellowship: Catalyst Public Service Fellowship Program through The New York Bar Foundation

Placement: Journey’s End Refugee Services Vive Branch

Location: Buffalo, New York

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The immigration system needs more attention and support RIGHT NOW to prepare for the impending environmental disaster.”