LegalHealth Embarks on New Partnership to Serve Survivors of Torture

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Indiana Porta

Staff Attorney Indiana Porta is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow who conducts intake at the new Asylum Clinic.

NYLAG’s LegalHealth Division has initiated a new partnership with the Libertas Center for Human Rights at Elmhurst Hospital and the private law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP. The three organizations have come together to collaboratively support asylum seekers throughout the application process.

The Libertas Center provides holistic medical and psycho-social services to survivors of torture and brutality. LegalHealth’s mission to complement health care with legal care and its ability to work with a diverse patient population made it a natural partner to provide civil legal services onsite at Libertas. Rounding out the partnership, Akin Gump accepts referrals and represents Libertas patients on a pro bono basis in their asylum cases.

According to Steven Schulman, Pro Bono Partner at Akin Gump, “This partnership allows our lawyers not only to represent deserving immigrants, but also to share our wealth of experience in asylum law with the Libertas professionals.”

Since the program began in November, clients from all over the world—including Nigeria, Nepal, Tibet, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—have come to LegalHealth’s monthly clinic at the Libertas Center seeking legal advice or representation. Indiana Porta, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at NYLAG, conducts the initial intakes at the clinic and prepares a referral packet for the pro bono attorney that includes the client’s narrative, grounds for asylum, and initial country conditions research. Porta then serves as a liaison between the client, pro bono counsel, and the Libertas team to ensure that there is continuity throughout the application process. “Many of the clients that come through the Libertas Center suffer from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Porta. “This makes the coordinated support they receive from LegalHealth and the Libertas Center crucial.”

The three organizations meet regularly to share valuable insights about their respective work. On January 27th, attorneys from LegalHealth and Akin Gump conducted a training on asylum law for social workers and physicians from the Libertas Center. The training covered how to screen for possible immigration referrals, as well as a review of the elements required for an affidavit in support of a patient’s asylum application. Additionally, staff thoroughly discussed the asylum application process, including the impact that navigating the complex immigration system can have on a patient’s mental health. The participants engaged in a multidisciplinary dialogue that provided new ideas on how to best serve asylum seekers and victimized immigrant populations. According to Porta, “The training was a major success; it has led to a rise in legal referrals and an increased placement of meritorious cases with pro bono counsel.”

In addition to securing pro bono representation for clients, the LegalHealth and Libertas partnership makes putting together a strong asylum application—supported by medical records, psychological evaluations, and affidavits from social service providers—a less formidable task. Often, private immigration attorneys will not accept asylum cases due to their resource intensive nature, explains Porta: “The research, supporting documentation and briefs need to be extremely precise.” This holds especially true for clients who have missed their one-year filing deadline. Through its diligence and its established partnerships with firms like Akin Gump, LegalHealth has been able to obtain pro bono representation for many clients who may qualify for an exception to the deadline.

One of the first clients assisted by the new partnership between LegalHealth, Akin Gump, and the Libertas Center was a Nigerian man threatened with death and targeted by a mob because of his sexual orientation. He is scheduled to have his asylum interview at the end of March. The timely submission of his application and supporting documents is a direct result of the collaborative efforts of all three organizations. This man, once suicidal, now has high-quality legal representation and zealous advocates on his side, giving him the hope that he will soon lead a safe and happy life.