Attorneys speak out about obstacles facing immigrants to Georgia

There’s a high demand for legal aid to immigrants seeking asylum

Attorneys speak out about obstacles facing immigrants to Georgia
Attorney Serene Hawasli Kashlan provides pro bono services to immigrants.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

This story originally ran in Qureshi’s Substack newsletter, 285 South, and was updated for Atlanta magazine’s February 2024 issue.

On any given day, Serene Hawasli Kashlan is responding to the legal needs of some 88 clients. They represent more than 36 different countries, she says, but they all share a common goal, to make the United States their permanent home. As managing asylum attorney at the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN), she’s among a relatively small group of metro Atlanta professionals providing a service that’s in high demand: pro bono representation for those who are seeking asylum.

Kashlan’s clients are escaping everything from war to persecution to gang violence to domestic abuse. Some of them arrived here by walking across the southern U.S. border. Some arrived here on visitor visas. Many have been stuck in the legal process for years.

“We have clients from 2015, and they’re like, What’s going on?,” says Kashlan. “We try to get them expedited if their case is ready, but sometimes [the courts] don’t answer us, or they say, ‘We can’t.’ It’s a waiting game.”

Her clients are among more than 70,000 people in Georgia waiting for a final decision from the immigration courts on their applications. For most, their chances aren’t good. Georgia’s immigration courts have among the highest denial rates in the country. Anywhere from 72 to 98 percent of people passing through the state’s courts were denied asylum by a judge in the last five years. Denial rates have dropped in the last two years, but they are still well above the national average.

Immigrant advocates are unable to pinpoint a definitive reason for the denials, but attribute them to a multitude of factors, ranging from political influences and the diverse nature of cases presented in the courts to the subjective opinions held by individual judges.

“It shouldn’t be different based on the state, but politics comes into hand,” says Kashlan. “And depending on who is making these discretionary decisions, because asylum is a discretionary form of relief, it affects how many people are approved.”

While GAIN is cautious not to cast blame entirely on the judges, issues have been documented. A group of Emory University law students partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and observed proceedings at the Atlanta Immigration Court in 2016. Among the findings: Judges “made prejudicial statements and expressed significant disinterest or even hostility towards respondents” and “routinely canceled hearings at the last minute . . . creating a culture that denies respondents’ access to court.”

The students also found issues with interpretation, writing in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice that “court interpreters regularly failed to interpret all English language conversations during hearings for respondents.” Peter Isbister, who represents clients who are currently detained and is senior lead attorney with the SPLC’s Southeastern Immigrant Freedom Initiative, says these problems have not significantly improved since 2016. The DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review did not respond to requests for comments on the findings.

One thing that does help increase the chances of asylum—regardless of the judge or the state—is legal representation. Nationally, denial rates for those without representation are between 80 and 90 percent. For those with representation, it’s between 60 and 70 percent. GAIN didn’t start tracking its success rate until recently, but Kashlan says she knows it makes a significant difference. “So far, we are seeing what we expected—that our grant rate is much higher than the national average of 41 percent, or the average here in the Atlanta court of 11 percent.”

But finding representation that’s affordable isn’t easy. In metro Atlanta, there just aren’t enough pro bono or “low bono” immigration lawyers to meet the demand.

“The average cost for an asylum case is $3,000 to $5,000. Someone coming [to the U.S.] with just their suitcase may not have the resources to pay,” says Kashlan. “There are a handful of people who do low bono in the Atlanta legal community. But it’s not enough. There’s always a high demand.”

That handful includes legal professionals at organizations like GAIN, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, the Latin American Association, the SPLC, the Georgia State Immigration Law Clinic, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), and the Tahirih Justice Center. The number of lawyers providing those services has been growing steadily over the last 10 years, but Isbister estimates it is still no more than 50.

Those lawyers have been stretched even more recently, as the number of new arrivals in Georgia has increased. Last May, Title 42, a Trump-era public health rule invoked to stop people from crossing the border, expired, technically opening paths to asylum again. But stringent rules put in place by the Biden administration have raised new challenges.

“We are slammed right now,” says

Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Latin American Association, a nonprofit headquartered on Buford Highway. In just one week, the organization supported 25 families with everything from housing to food to clothing. GAIN has been holding Saturday legal clinics, says its legal director, Adriana Heffley, to “help dozens of new arrivals apply for immigration benefits like work permits and Temporary Protected Status.”

In October, the Atlanta City Council approved $7 million for half a dozen organizations working to support newly arrived migrants, including GAIN and the Latin American Association. But the money, and the legal support, can’t come fast enough.

Underpinning the whole issue, says Mich González, former director of advocacy for the Southeastern Immigrant Freedom Initiative, is the fact that there are limited paths to status for most people outside of asylum. “There are so few paths to status. The reality is . . . there are genuinely meritorious asylum seekers. And then there are also people who migrate for very valid reasons that don’t fall into categories of asylum.”

Kashlan, whose parents are immigrants from Syria, says the high demand for legal representation is something that’s not likely to change. “It’s unfortunate. There’s so much going on in the world and so many people suffering and so many corrupt governments. People are fleeing because they have to.”