I recently spoke with Astrid Ackerman on her experience with the Newark Asylum Office’s pilot project. She attended an asylum interview where she appeared remotely, while the client went in-person. Read below to see some tips and hear more about this experience.

Q: Could you explain your organization and role within it?

Astrid Ackerman

I am currently a Kramer Levin extern at Brooklyn Legal Services’ (BLS) Immigration Unit. BLS provides a range of immigration services to low-income non-detained immigrants. As an extern, I have a docket of about 25 cases, including asylum, SIJS, removal defense, LPRs, and VAWAs.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted your specific work?

Immigration court in NY has been closed for non-detained matters since March 2020 and cases have been postponed indefinitely or recalendared. The pandemic has made it more challenging to communicate with clients given the lack of government support for child care and clients having to adjust to working with video technologies or dealing with the lack of wifi accessibility for low-income workers. As to the affirmative asylum process, asylum offices paused performing interviews during the pandemic and now the offices are reopened with limited space capacities and keeping social distancing protocols. This means that clients and lawyers can’t be in the same office during the interview, unless they explicitly ask for it, and that the asylum officer does not conduct the interview face to face with the asylum petitioner, and instead it is done through video conferencing. 

Q: What is the remote pilot project that you participated in? 

I participated in Newark’s asylum office’s remote asylum interview program. The client had to go in person to the Newark office and the asylum officer was in the office too, but in a separate room than my client and the interview was conducted as a video conference through Microsoft Teams.

Q: What was the remote interview process like?

Overall, the process ran smoothly. I previously had to send a short form to the Newark office requesting permission to appear via video and make use of their pilot program. The interview was on a Monday and I received approval to participate in the program around Thursday. The approval only mentioned that I would receive a Microsoft Teams invite for the conference the day/time of the interview. By the time and day the interview was scheduled, I had not received the invite so I had to call the Newark office and let them know of the issue. I was put in touch with the asylum officer in charge of my case and they called me on my phone. The asylum officer asked whether I wanted to just do the interview on the phone, but I requested he send a conference invite because my client and I would prefer to conduct the interview via video. The officer then sent a Microsoft Teams invite to my email, but the audio was through the phone, not the Microsoft Teams app. I didn’t need to download any app to connect. There were no audio issues throughout the interview. I was able to see my client on video, but unable to see the asylum officer. 

Q: How did you prepare and what tips would you give to other attorney’s participating in remote legal services?

For the most part, I prepared just as I would have for an in-person asylum interview. I reviewed our submission, which included affidavits, police letters, and country conditions research. I also prepared a list of key facts that I wanted my client to touch on during the interview to keep track of what wasn’t mentioned in order to guide my closing remarks in the interview. I also did several mock interviews with my client over the phone. This was really useful as it mimicked the actual interview’s setting. Attorney’s preparing to participate in remote services should make sure they explain the interview process to the client. It’s also good to ensure your computer doesn’t get pesky with Microsoft Teams since you’ll likely won’t be able to try out the link in advance of the interview. Conducting mock interviews with your client via a videoconferencing program is crucial to get the client used to the process. I also think it’s best to prepare the client for an impatient asylum officer and advise your client to provide short answers. Even if there are no video or audio issues, video conferencing is not exactly like face to face communication. There are some physical cues that are harder to perceive in video conferencing that in person. These cues are important for clients to gauge whether they should wrap up their answer or keep discussing it. In place of these cues, I think it’s good practice to have shorter answers and then take the asylum officer’s lead on whether more discussion is necessary. 

Q: Would you recommend this pilot project to other pro bonos?

Yes, it was a great experience and it was good for the client too. Especially for clients who have been waiting a long time for asylum interviews, the pilot project offers a way to go forward with the process.