Lawyers talk about the obstacles facing immigrants to Georgia

Lawyer Serene Hawasli Kashlan provides pro bono services to immigrants.

Photo by Johnathon Kelso

This story originally appeared in Qureshi's Substack newsletter, 285 South, and was updated for the February 2024 issue of Atlanta magazine.

On any given day, Serene Hawasli Kashlan responds to the legal needs of approximately 88 clients. They represent more than 36 different countries, she says, but they all have a common goal: to make the United States their permanent home. As a senior asylum attorney with the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN), she is one of a relatively small group of metro Atlanta professionals providing a high-demand service: pro bono representation for asylum seekers.

Kashlan's clients escape everything from war to persecution to gang violence and domestic violence. Some of them came here on foot across the southern US border. Some came here on visitor visas. Many have been stuck in court for years.

“We have customers from 2015 and they’re like, ‘What’s going on?’” says Kashlan. “We try to expedite them when their case is ready, but sometimes [the courts] Don’t answer us or they’ll say, ‘We can’t do that.’ It’s a waiting game.”

Her clients include more than 70,000 people in Georgia who are awaiting a final decision from immigration courts on their applications. For most people the chances are not good. Georgia's immigration courts have among the highest denial rates in the country. Over the past five years, between 72 and 98 percent of people appearing in state courts have been denied asylum by a judge. Rejection rates have fallen over the past two years, but are still well above the national average.

Immigration advocates are unable to pinpoint a clear reason for the denials, but attribute them to a variety of factors, ranging from political influences and the variety of cases presented in court to the subjective opinions of individual judges.

“It shouldn’t be different depending on the state, but politics comes into play,” says Kashlan. “And depending on who makes those discretionary decisions, because asylum is a discretionary form of relief, it impacts how many people are admitted.”

While GAIN is careful not to place blame solely on judges, problems have been documented. A group of Emory University law students worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and observed proceedings in the Atlanta Immigration Court in 2016. The findings included: “Judges made adverse statements and expressed significant disinterest or even hostility toward respondents” and “routinely canceled hearings at the last minute. . . Creating a culture that denies defendants access to court.”

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

One thing that helps increase the chances of obtaining asylum – regardless of the judge or the state – is legal representation. Nationwide, rejection rates for people without representation are between 80 and 90 percent. For those authorized to represent them, it is between 60 and 70 percent. GAIN only recently started tracking its success rate, 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 at the court in Atlanta of 11 percent.”

However, finding affordable representation is not easy. There are simply not enough pro bono or “low bono” immigration lawyers in the Atlanta metropolitan area to meet the demand.

“The average cost of an asylum case is $3,000 to $5,000. Someone is coming [to the U.S.] People who travel with just their suitcase may not have the means to pay,” says Kashlan. “There are a handful of people in the Atlanta legal community who receive low bonuses. But it's not enough. Demand is always high.”

This handful includes lawyers from organizations such as 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 these services has grown steadily over the past decade, but Isbister estimates it still numbers no more than 50.

These lawyers have recently become even more overworked as the number of new arrivals to Georgia has increased. Last May, Title 42, a Trump-era public health rule designed to prevent people from crossing the border, expired, technically reopening pathways to asylum. But the strict rules put in place by the Biden administration have brought new challenges.

“We are under pressure right now,” he says

Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Latin American Association, a nonprofit organization headquartered on Buford Highway. In just one week, the organization supported 25 families with everything from shelter to food to clothing. GAIN held legal clinics on Saturday, says its legal director Adriana Heffley, to “help dozens of newcomers apply for immigration benefits such as work permits and temporary protected status.”

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

Underlying the whole problem, according to Mich González, former advocacy director 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 truly deserving asylum seekers. And then there are also people who emigrate for very valid reasons who do not fall into the asylum category.”

Kashlan, whose parents are immigrants from Syria, says the high demand for legal representation is unlikely to change. “It's unfortunate. There's so much happening in the world and so many people suffering and so many corrupt governments. People are fleeing because they have to.”