Image credit: Leisy Abrego

Pro Bono Expert Witness Database Project

Leisy Abrego, Chicana/o and Central American Studies and Cecilia Menjívar, Sociology, UCLA

Neoliberal reforms, military violence, state terror, and climate change continue to displace people from their home countries around the world. In the United States, the government has enacted foreign and global policies of dispossession and neocolonization around the world,  refusing to accept their government’s role in creating the violence that displaces people while also blocking refugees and asylum-seekers from protection. Today, seeking asylum too often entails long-term detention and deportability.

The expansion of the U.S. enforcement apparatus has sought to dismantle the asylum system so that today asylum seekers, especially those who come through the U.S. southern border, may be turned away without having the opportunity to present their claims—a clear violation of international agreements of non-refoulment. Those asylum seekers who manage to present their cases in immigration court face an uphill battle, as immigration judges tighten restrictions and decline applications at higher rates in a context of expanded enforcement. Applicants who cannot afford legal representation have almost zero chance of winning their cases. Losing a case means deportation to the conditions they fled in the first place. The stakes, therefore, are high and it is not an exaggeration to state that legal representation can save people’s lives.

A key component in cases before immigration judges today is a declaration by an expert who can testify and explain to the court the country conditions that the applicant has fled and why their lives will be at risk if they are returned to those conditions. The testimony of an expert witness notably increases the likelihood of a successful outcome in asylum applications in U.S. immigration court today.

In this project, we are working to create a database of pro bono country experts so that the organizations more likely to represent cases of the most disenfranchised applicants can secure experts for their cases. These organizations include law school clinics that train their students through working on cases; non-profit legal aid organizations, and attorneys choosing to dedicate some of their work hours to working pro bono on a single case.

With the aid of Cassandra Frías (L3), we have made progress in locating 35 pro bono experts focusing on various countries in Latin America, Morocco, Somalia, Algeria, Libya, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Kuwait, and Syria. We plan to continue to add experts from around the world to the database and have already matched pro bono lawyers with pro bono experts in four asylum cases. This searchable database will be made available free of charge to advocates who promote the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.