1. July 20, 2007. - I applied for asylum. Case was received and lost! I don't know what happened. I followed up on this case to no avail. 2. January 2008 - Reapplied, a fresh new case. 3. February 12 2008 - Interview with AO at Chicago!
4. Febraury 22 2008 - Went back to get the results of case. Result: Case referred to immigration judge. I think that my case was strong, but since I didn't have legal representation, the AO couldn't make a decision. In other words, the case was strong, but it was not coherent, I mean, it was not put in a clear format. Walking out after getting the result, I was devastated. I didn't know how to proceed. When the case is referred to an immigration judge, it means you are in removal proceedings.
5. April 9, 2008: My first hearing with the immigration judge was scheduled. Very important things I did (As I write this, i'm referring back to my old emails! I still have them all. ):
a) The packet that you get from AO when your case is denied/referred to an IG, it has important information. One of the piece of information in the packet was about calling the NIJC to get FREE legal representation. NIJC = National Immigration Justice Center. With my April 9 2008 hearing coming up fast, I contacted NIJC. Per my email, I wrote them on March 13 2008 at 5:21pm telling them:
"Good Afternoon, I still need legal assistance in a asylum matter. I have a Master Calendar meeting with an IJ next month (04/09/08) and i was hoping that i could have legal assistance before that. What should i do to meet with a pro bono lawyer? My case was refered to the IJ by an immigration officer.
I have no phone, but you can get hold of me on this email anytime.
Thank you and i can't wait to hear from you."
b) I heard back from NIJC on the same day. Fun fact: The NIJC help desk attendee/coordinator turned out that I had gone to the same college with him, he was ahead by one year.. Anyway, over the next couple of weeks, they matched me with pro bono lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom! They were just kids who were Associates, who had recently graduated from Chicago Law (University of Chicago). Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom is one of the best, biggest, law firms in the world.
c) I worked with the pro bono lawyers preparing the case. At the April hearing, we asked the judge for a continuance (if you go through the court hearing system, you will get to hate this word a lot). He gave us a date next year! 2009! August 20! = 16 months later! That is a 'continuance for you!!!
6. Worked with the pro bono lawyers for a whole year. Because of the long continuance, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom gave me new pro bono lawyers. I liked working with the lawyers, because for all our strategy sessions, we would do them in the conference rooms at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, at 155 N Upper Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60606, high on the 22nd floor. I could see the whole city from up there. They gave me access to printers. It was always fun up there.
a) During that 16 months, I did independent research. For example, I attended hearings for other asylum applicants at55 E Monroe St Chicago, IL 60603.At that time, the courts were at 55 E Monroe, but the offices of Asylum officers office was at 525 W Van Buren St #500, Chicago, IL 60607. I had lots of time on my hands, because I couldn't qualify for an EAD: Continuances STOP the 90 day count. Mine was stuck at 61 days or something.
b) Dark humor: I was present for a number of sad/strange cases:
1. I attended a case where the applicant had so many DUIs that the judge didn't know what to do with man. He was from Mexico. He had sentenced the guy to rehabilitation twice, hopping he would come clean, but to no avail. 2. I attended a case of a man from Iran. His case had been in the system since 1995. The case had been handled by many judges that the current judge didn't know what to say. Seeing and hearing about this man's case broke my heart: If you are not careful, if you miss your mails from EOIR, your case can get into a black hole like this man's. 3. A continuance was made because the judge was down with a flu! 4. Met a guy fighting his case. He was from the DRC, a real dark hole where the US government had not idea what was happening there to verify his claims: Government lawyers DO NOT HAVE ACCESS TO CIA/FBI FILES about country conditions. Like us, the rely on State Department briefings, sourced from US Ambassadors abroad. = Means they do not have strong evidence to come against you!
7. August 20, 2009: Hearing was set. The judge handling my case was the honorable Robert D. Vinikoor, old man with a bold head. During my interaction with him, he seamed disinterested with my case. Really tired, seeming like he wanted to go and sleep. The government lawyer assigned to the case was also not interested in my case: He had a huge workload of cases. Between 2009-2014, Judge Vinikoor made 588 Asylum case decisions, including mine. He approved/granted 45.1% of the cases, one of the lowest in the country. Before that, his grant rate was 43%.
a) Dressed in a cheap used suit on the hearing day. I had practiced with the Skadden pro bono lawyers on what answers to give, how to describe my case etc. b) Weeks before the hearings, we had submitted the case documents to the court clerk. So on the day of hearing, the judge and the government lawyers were very familiar with the case. c) Feeling nervous, I started describing my case, after taking the pledge to tell the truth. After two minutes, judge Vinikoor said Stop. He asked the government lawyer if he wanted to cross examine me. He said no! d) The judge then said I'm going to grant your request for relief. "Do you have any objections," the Judge Vinikoor asked the government lawyers. They said no! Judge Vinikoor signed the paper work. I was so happy!
8. I went to the Social Security Administration at 77 West Jackson Blvd Suite 300 Chicago, Illinois 60604 to get my Social Security Card with no work restrictions.
9. I went to USCIS building at 101 W Congress Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60605 to get my I-94 Card, with my face on it (Useless document. I never used it for anything). For proof of my status, I had the order from Immigration judge.
A few lessons to take away:
1. The asylum process can be very long if you are not careful. I can't emphasize this enough: Cut the length of the time it will take you through the process by seeking legal assistance at the outset. Look at me...I didn't get legal help...hence it took 22 months! Seek legal help at the outset, spend even three months preparing your case (before submitting it). Have all your ducks in a roll. 2. If your case is denied by the Asylum Officer, all is not lost. But be prepared to fight for the long haul. It can take months, years to go through the process. 3. In order to be successful, make sure you have a support network. You might not be able to work for months. For me, I was just a kid, straight out of college. Fighting my case meant that I had to live on the streets of Chicago. It made the process very tough. Reach out to the Chicago Department of Family Services, they provide housing for free. They did help me during the 22 months fighting my case. 4. Be the owner of your case. Don't let the lawyers take over: Their role should be to 'format' the case for presentation to the judge. You must be the teller of your story. In my case, with changing pro bono lawyers, I became the lead counsel on the case because I knew everything about it. 5. Be proactive about your case. Ask questions, look for help to confirm/support your case facts. For example, a doctor of internal medicine at Uchicago medical school examined my scars to ascertain my claims of torture. His report was added to my case! 6. Have a good/real mailing address so you don't miss a single mail from EOIR. This is very very important. Most cases that take years to conclude they happen because of people missing hearings/mail from EOIR. 7. Don't forget to call 1-800-898-7180 to check your case status. I called the number today, they still have my status from 2009! 8. It can take a long time to get the case approved. Mine took 22 months. In 2008, I know a man from Iran who was trying to get his case approved since 1995.
I am 419 days away from applying for citizenship. Everything I do, all geared toward that. I wish you all guys the best.