BYU Law, Wilson Sonsini Join Forces To Aid Asylum-Seekers

By Emma Cueto | November 3, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

As the number of cases pending in immigration courts across the countries grow, the system faces an acute shortage of attorneys, meaning many people in the system are unrepresented, hurting their chances of convincing the court that they should be allowed to stay in the country.

In an effort to change such outcomes for asylum-seekers, a group at Brigham Young University Law School is gearing up to develop tools to help those applying for asylum without attorneys to navigate the process successfully. In developing and then implementing those tools, the school will be joining forces with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC and SixFifty, the firm’s technology subsidiary.

The class, called LawX, has in the past developed tools for other groups that are often unrepresented, including people facing debt collection suits and tenants in disputes with their landlords. Both tools are still available and are being maintained — the debt collection suit tool by one of the students involved in its development and the landlord tenant tool by SixFifty.

And in the 2020 spring term, it plans to turn its attention to the plight of asylum-seekers, tapping the experience of Wilson Sonsini attorneys who have pro bono experience with asylum cases.

“It’s a terrible issue, and I think especially with some of the political developments, it’s become more hostile ... and difficult,” said BYU professor Kimball Parker, who runs the class. “So we want to help.”

According to a 2008 review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 39% of those who applied for asylum before facing removal proceedings were granted asylum if they had an attorney. For those who applied without an attorney, though, only 12% prevailed. The U.S. Department of Justice indicates that 14% of all asylum-seekers — over 66,000 people — are currently going it alone.

The problems they face, Parker said, are numerous, starting with the initial application form.

“This document is so intimidating,” Parker said. “I don’t know how anyone fills this out without an expert sitting right beside them — and it has to be in English.”

Looking at a way to help people fill out the form is one potential tool the class will consider developing, he said. It might also examine solutions like helping nonprofits handle cases more efficiently, making sure their resources can stretch further and reach more people.

The approach is similar to past projects that the LawX classes have undertaken. During the first year the class was offered, students investigated debt collection suits, in which most people often don’t even respond to a summons. The class developed a web application called SoloSuit that Parker compared to TurboTax, which helps ordinary people prepare a response to suits filed by debt collectors.

The following year, students looked into landlord-tenant disputes and found that by the time eviction suits are filed, there often isn’t much an attorney could even do to help a tenant. Instead, the students developed a tool to help tenants communicate with their landlords when they first begin to have trouble paying rent, with the goal being to avoid an eviction case in the first place.

“We have been impressed by LawX and SixFifty’s work in tackling important legal issues through design thinking and its ability to bring pro bono solutions to people who do not otherwise have access to legal representation,” Doug Clark, managing partner at Wilson Sonsini, said in a statement. “We have had a long-standing commitment to address asylum challenges and look forward to expanding on our successful work through partnering with LawX and SixFifty on these pressing issues.”

The tool or tools that might ultimately come out of the 2020 class remain to be seen, and Parker said that a big part of the class involved looking at the issue “from the ground up” and talking to people with firsthand knowledge of the problem.

In examining the asylum system, he plans for the class to get input from employees inside the immigration court system, legal aid groups, attorneys and other stakeholders.  

“You talk with people and you figure out, ‘Where’s the best intervention point?’” Parker explained.

While a lot of people have tried various strategies to help address these issues in the past, Parker said the thing that makes a difference for the LawX class really comes down to the software engineers at SixFifty that help build the tools the students develop.

The process takes a lot of research and testing and refining for the students, he explained, but the engineering resources let them take their ideas out of the theoretical realm and produce something to help real people.

Though the class has only been offered twice in the past, it’s been a big hit with students, according to Parker, and he said that he plans to keep running it for years to come.

“There’s no shortage of ways that people are harmed by not being able to afford an attorney,” he said. “You pick an area of law, and there’s going to be a need there.”

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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.