An unprecedented 800,000 asylum seekers have applications pending. Swapna Reddy is putting in place … [+]
Swapna Reddy grew up outside Nashville, the daughter of Indian immigrants. While in law school, she co-founded the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) to bring emergency legal aid to asylum seekers and push for bigger reforms. Ashoka’s Annie Plotkin-Madrigal spoke with Swapna about her changemaker journey, the border crisis, and why the culture of law needs to change.
Swapna, take us back to the beginning – why did you start ASAP?
I went to Dilley, Texas in 2015 to volunteer in a detention center built to hold 2,400 women and children. At the time it was the biggest immigration detention facility in the country. There, I met a woman named Suny Rodríguez who was forced to go to trial while being detained with her son. It’s a common story today, but most people were unaware of this crisis just five years ago. I worked with a team to represent Suny on a rapid timeline. We had to move quickly and think creatively, even prepare some of her case remotely. With our help, Suny won her case. Then she asked us to make that kind of help available to everyone. That’s how ASAP was born.
Some fields embrace rapid innovation and disruption, what about law?
Law is traditional by definition. It is designed for gradual change. This can be a positive — for example, you may not want systems to be too pliable if democracy is under threat. But in a time of crisis, when hundreds of thousands of people are suffering due to inhumane laws, the legal profession needs to adapt faster and undo the damage we’ve caused.
What kinds of legal crises are people facing?
Take in absentia removal orders. These are deportation orders that people receive when they don’t appear in court for their immigration hearings. They have an extraordinary impact on asylum seekers. You might think: if someone can’t show up for their hearing, they deserve to be deported. But ASAP runs private online communities for over 4,000 asylum seekers, and we hear all the time from people who had no idea they had been scheduled for a hearing — the notice went to the wrong address, or was never sent at all — until they receive a letter from ICE to show up for deportation. The problem is the legal system, not the people trapped inside it.
In such cases, how do ASAP lawyers help?
We reverse the deportation orders by showing immigration judges the legitimate reasons people missed their hearing. They were giving birth to a child. Their car broke down and the closest immigration court is 12 hours from their home. They didn’t know about the hearing because the government used the wrong address.
What are the opportunities for process reform on this issue?
There are plenty of improvements that most people can agree on. Things like shifting from paper to digital notices and making it easier for people to communicate with the court in case of emergency. We have a policy report on this issue, and we are grateful to the members of Congress who have introduced bills including our recommendations in the House and Senate. Whatever your politics, it’s hard to make a moral argument against improvements that allow people to communicate with courts in a clear, efficient manner.
As the border crisis worsens, what’s ahead for ASAP?
We started ASAP before the current administration. A lot — almost all — of the current problems existed before, just at a smaller scale. We built ASAP to address the worst case scenario of the prior administration, and that situation is now the status quo. Moving forward, we want to do a lot more to equip asylum seekers to fight back and to help lawyers serve clients effectively as the crisis grows. If there is good news, it’s that the crisis has pushed people to think flexibly and more ambitiously about what’s possible. I’m optimistic that the apparatus we’re building at ASAP and across the immigrants’ rights movement can be mobilized for positive emergencies as well as negative ones.
What kind of positive emergency?
Let’s say a future administration supports some kind of large-scale relief for asylum seekers, something like the Cuban Adjustment Act or DACA. The immigrants’ rights movement — including lawyers — would need to mobilize to help people secure relief as quickly as possible. I see a collaborative, adaptive, flexible movement emerging that could serve us well in the future.
Other trends you’re hopeful about?
I am hopeful that the immigration crisis is bringing more people to law school who are personally impacted by these issues. People who are directly accountable to the communities under attack. There’s a lot wrong with the legal profession and how immigration laws are written and formed. That means there is also a lot of room for lawyers to learn and grow. And there is no one better to lead that shift than the impacted students entering law school today.
Your advice for people – lawyers and non-lawyers – interested in immigration reform?
Stay aware. Make a commitment to remain engaged no matter what the results of the next election are. These are traumatic issues, and it’s important to engage in a sustainable way. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Whether things keep getting worse or there is an opportunity for reform, we will still need people to show up in five years. And remember, the fallout of any major crisis continues for years or decades – something that policymakers, funders, volunteers, and all of us need to keep in mind.
Swapna is a 2019 Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about her and her work here. This interview was condensed by Ashoka.
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