BY: | DATE: Oct 31, 2023

Law students train volunteers throughout CUNY together to change the asylum-seeking process

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Emerging Needs Clinic (ENC), CUNY Citizenship Now is coordinating efforts for 11/11 and 11/18. Please make sure to specify that you want to work with the Law School ENC events. Or you can contact the Clinic via email and request to be notified of upcoming opportunities in the months ahead.


The Emerging Needs Clinic is unlike any other. Whereas the traditional clinic model has a long runway for preparing cases and thinking through the steps of getting a case to trial and through completion, CUNY Law’s new clinic is a study of how to move legal work forward in a crisis.

Designing it as a new lawyering model focused on rapid response to systems in need of triage, Dean Carmen Huertas-Noble, and Co-Directors Profs. Liliana Yanez and Alizabeth Newman focused the ENC on helping asylum seekers in New York City. The Clinic launched along with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs’s (MOIA) announcement of the Asylum Seeker Legal Assistance Network (ASLAN) with community-based organizations citywide. ASLAN is a $5 million investment in immigration legal services for newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers.

The opposite of a curated experience, where cases are selected based on how they might complement pedagogy or the larger infrastructure of hands-on lawyering, the Clinic is designed to teach students the strategies and mechanics of crisis lawyering: who are the constituents we are serving and what are their biggest needs? Who are the partner organizations we can collaborate with? How do we prioritize issues, knowing they are intersectional? How do we approach triage, keeping in mind that resources are limited?

“We’re providing oversight, but it’s the students who are driving this work,” reveals Yanez, one of the Clinic’s co-directors. “This is a very real need for future leaders: to know how to get volunteers, how to train them, how to address language access, how to set up a space that lends itself to building trust and preserving privacy.” With a background in immigrant and refugee rights, she has returned to CUNY Law for this project after teaching in its immigration clinic more than a decade earlier.

And the students are working hard. Typically, an asylum application can take anywhere from three to four months to prepare, from establishing trust to conducting multiple interviews, to building a theory of the case, which requires marshaling the facts, corroborating with friends and family, and sometimes forensic evaluation. At the ENC, they cover all the basic necessities for a complete and accurate application in three to four hours.

This is accomplished in part due to the segmenting of the application into elements in which volunteers from throughout CUNY can help asylum seekers with the biographical elements of the application—education, employment history, where they have lived—which is time-consuming enough for anyone, but particularly for people in flight from their homes for a variety of reasons: oppression, violence, environmental disasters, and more. Then, CUNY Law students take over the elements that require legal expertise. During their first Application Assistance Event of the semester, twenty people—over two years’ worth of cases, if a lawyer were to take them on two at a time—arrived at Main Street Legal Services in need of help. The Clinic team worked until midnight to help the first ten be ready to file the following day and made plans to finish the applications of the remaining ten before the next Application Assistance Event the following week.

“These are really intense cases. Our students handle themselves with incredible professionalism,” praises Newman, who is an alumna and also returning to clinic teaching after directing the Law School’s Alumni Office. “We had volunteers who needed to take breaks between clients, going into the bathroom and breaking down.” The need, she stresses, is dire. “There’s an urgency to this. Many people are approaching the one-year filing deadline, so for everyone who meets the requirements for asylum, we work to get those filed as quickly as possible.”

The ENC is aiming to do more than 1,000 cases this year. Its partners within ASLAN are traditional legal agencies, which work asylum cases on a 1:1 basis. The ENC’s particular innovation is to train volunteers from across CUNY to complete the biographic details. The resulting paradigm shift means a lawyer only needs one to two hours with a client to complete the limited scope model of support, which is tightly focused on helping safeguard the ability to present an asylum case, of which the application is just the first step.

CUNY has done this before, with the creation of CUNY Citizenship Now!, an initiative focused on helping students and their families throughout CUNY access pathways to citizenship as part of the University’s commitment to access and economic mobility. The program breaks down the steps of the citizenship process with volunteers, law students, and lawyers working events that move upwards of 100 people through a streamlined process with legal guidance at no cost. There are plans to replicate that success in ways that only CUNY can. ENC is in conversation with programs throughout the University regarding collaboration: the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College could perhaps provide support to asylum seekers; more students from the interpretation and prelaw programs at John Jay College of Criminal Justice might volunteer, and perhaps the CUNY School of Medicine at the City College of New York might collaborate on forensic evaluations and public health education.

Built to pivot, respond, reflect, and evolve, the Emerging Needs Clinic is poised to lay the foundation for a new kind of collaboration between law schools and higher education, city agencies, and the community partner entities that surround them. While its area of focus may change year to year, depending on the needs of New Yorkers and their city, it’s already helping to train the next generation of lawyers determined to center human needs in the midst of crisis.