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Defending the Displaced: CIRC Students Support Afghans

Months after the Fall of Kabul and the withdrawal of the last American troops from Afghanistan, students in the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (CIRC) have helped to respond to the humanitarian crisis through community education and legal support.
CIRC | Penn State Law

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Months after the Fall of Kabul and the withdrawal of the last American troops from Afghanistan, students in the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic (CIRC) have helped to respond to the humanitarian crisis through community education and legal support. 

CIRC students have developed presentations that educate community stakeholders about immigration law as it relates to the wave of Afghans who’ve found their way to America. Students have collaborated with PARS Equality Center and Khanbabai Immigration Law to produce fact sheets in multiple languages on Humanitarian Parole, Asylum Basics, and Know Your Rights for Afghans, among other key resources. CIRC has also delivered workshops to the community about the legal options available to Afghans and cultural humility.

“CIRC students take very complex information and make it accessible to the people who are impacted, as well as the broader community,” said CIRC founder and director and law school Associate Dean Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia.

“That’s such a crucial lawyering skill – to be able to talk to people once you’ve digested so much information,” Wadhia said.

Led by Wadhia – who is also a member of the Afghan Response Taskforce for the American Immigration Lawyers Association – students have directly assisted Afghans, as many organizations around the country do their part to resettle more Afghans in the U.S.

“[This has] been integral to our legal foundation because it has allowed us to work on our legal skills, practice our client communication and work with different types of clients whose stories were complex and emotionally charged,” said Penn State Law student Maria Vejarano, ’23.

Students directly involved with Afghan resettlement

Earlier this semester, CIRC students and Wadhia traveled to a U.S. government base to assist recently arrived Afghans and while on site, conducted legal orientations, assisted with special immigrant visa and adjustment of status (“green card”) applications, provided workshops on asylum, and conducted individual intakes for asylum seekers.

Wadhia said the experience exposed students to “triage lawyers” in an environment that was unpredictable and where the need for information and legal help was very high.

“Our trip to the base was truly a life-changing experience. Having the opportunity to exercise skills and knowledge I've gained in the classroom to help families and individuals was eye-opening,” said Penn State Law J.D. candidate, Mikaela Koski, ’22.

“By working alongside intelligent, passionate immigration lawyers, I had the opportunity to learn while participating in the best our profession has to offer,” she continued. “The CIRC trip felt like the culmination of my experience at Penn State Law, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.”

CIRC continues to work on asylum cases for Afghans and to continue their efforts to educate the community and Afghan families about changing immigration policy.

‘I see myself as a human in them’

Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security designated Afghanistan for Temporary Protected Status, a remedy in immigration law that allows those already in the U.S. to apply for temporary status and work authorization.  

For CIRC student Samira del Pilar Vasquez Lavado, learning how to defend refugees strikes close to home, as she saw her native Peru cope with a refugee crisis from Venezuela. She said her hope is to work with United Nations volunteers in a similar manner.

“It is very gratifying to see law practitioners, attorneys, and organizations working together to address these cases,” del Pilar Vasquez Lavado said about her clinical work through CIRC.

“What motivates me is that I can identify myself with (Afghan refugees), I see myself as human in them and if you don't help within your capacities and with your abilities then you are being mediocre,” she said.

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