Welcome to the United States

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By: Carolyn Duttweiler ‘23

“…it is of more importance to community that innocence should be protected, than it is that guilt should be punished” – John Adams

Recently, I went out with a group of people to grab drinks and play pool. This was early in the summer, only a few weeks after I had started my placement at VIVE, a local shelter for asylum seekers. Most of these people were strangers to me, but everyone knew someone, and a friendly group formed. 

Halfway through the evening, I was approached by the crowd favorite, a friend of a friend of a friend: comedian, charismatic, a gifted pool player, white male. When I told him that I was a legal intern at a shelter for asylum seekers, he praised me for doing such “noble” work for the “helpless.” And then he said, “Well I guess when I think of a refugee, I picture a struggling single mother. But you’re probably forced to work with a lot of other rough types, huh?” 

Despite everything we know about asylum seekers and refugees, the horrors they are fleeing, the risks that they are taking to come here, the overwhelming evidence that they are not harbingers of crime, they continue to be mischaracterized and misunderstood. A few months ago, what would have bothered me about his statement was that it was an all-too-common American sentiment reflected in a stereotypically American subject. Prejudiced, sure, but partisan and unstructured. But exposure to immigration law made me bothered for a new reason: we have allowed such unsupported misconceptions to be reflected in our law and in a way that runs counter to professed American values. 

The United States is full of pride, both deserved and undeserved. Three basic tenets are perhaps lauded more than others: America is the land of freedom; America values hard work and economic success; in America, you are innocent until you are proven guilty. The U.S. immigration system (and particularly, for my purposes, the asylum process) does not always reflect these principles. Below are three short anecdotes from my time at my placement, each one representing a basic American value that was withheld from an asylum seeker navigating immigration law. 

Freedom: We take for granted the freedom to do as we please within the confines of the law. I was reminded of this while I shifted uncomfortably across from a 60-year-old woman who told me that she had fled from a possible encounter with law enforcement, even when she had done nothing wrong. She had been in a public park when she started getting harassed by a nearby group of people, who wanted to claim the area for themselves. They told her to leave and she initially refused, knowing she had a right to remain in a public space. But when they threatened to involve the police, she fled, telling me later that “I was so afraid that it would affect my case,” a case that has been pending for six years. For six years, she has lived with uncertainty and fear, outside the protection of the law, with limited rights of movement and access to few benefits, while she waits on an overburdened system to decide the future course of her life. That is not the freedom America promises. 

Work: I met with another client three times before I asked him about his education and work history. Each time he wore the same clothes, baggy shirt and too-small sweatpants. He is a twenty-something young man from a “developing” country, the “rough type” my new acquaintance had alluded to. He asked me when he could apply for a work permit and I told him that the law does not allow asylum seekers to even apply to work until at least 150 days after they submit their application. Even though a common (and misinformed) protest against undocumented immigrants is that they are a drain on both public and private resources, the law refuses to allow even eager and capable individuals to get a job. Impressively, my client shared that he had spent several years at university and had obtained an advanced degree. His contribution to our economy could be on the poster for the American Dream, but the system stands in his way. 

Innocence: In criminal law, the prosecution bears the burden of proving that the defendant committed the crime. In asylum proceedings, it is the opposite. For my client, this meant having to prove that he is a member of the LGBTQ+ population and had fled persecution in his home country. We worked together to collect evidence to support his story, all the while he wore a GPS ankle monitor that had been put on him by ICE. In the eyes of the United States, he is lying, either about his identity or his fear of persecution, until he can prove otherwise. He is treated like a criminal before he has a chance to prove his honesty. That is a presumption of guilt, not the protection of innocence. 

Every system needs rules. That is undeniable. My time at my placement has allowed me to witness beautiful stories of hope, where persecuted individuals found safety and acceptance within the borders of the United States. But there is dissonance between the values we purport to uphold and the realities of our immigration system. Misconceptions are reflected in how the process unfolds. Remembering that real people, and their unique, messy, consequential lives, lie behind our categorical assumptions is an important first step on the path to change.

I would like to sincerely thank Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC for their generous donation to the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program, which made my internship possible. Through your generosity, I was able to learn about and experience a highly relevant sector of the law. Thank you for your support and commitment to public interest work.  

Please note: Several details in the above anecdotes have been altered to preserve client confidentiality. The substance of each story is true.

Name: Carolyn Duttweiler ’23

Name of Fellowship: Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC Fellowship

Placement: Journey’s End Refugee Services, Vive Branch Office

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Remembering that real people, and their unique, messy, consequential lives, lie behind our categorical assumptions is an important first step on the path to change.”