Seeking Asylum: The Challenges and Rewards of Helping Individuals Seek Refuge in the United States

By: Anne S. Bautista, Legal Support and Strategy Director
Casa Cornelia Law Center
San Diego, California

July 2023

Kamel*, an Afghanistan native who opposes the Taliban regime as an oppressive ideology, endured significant danger during his life in his home country. This led to him being persecuted and having to seek refuge twice.

During the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, Kamel was targeted and imprisoned. He was able to connect with a friend who helped him escape. Kamel left Afghanistan for a long time before he returned. Living abroad and without immigration status, he worked odd jobs. When the United States military came to Afghanistan, he returned to his home country, ready to help build a new Afghanistan, free of Taliban rule.

Back in Afghanistan, he worked for a successful construction company. With his team, he built a multitude of buildings and structures throughout Afghanistan, but his success was not as peaceful as it seemed. Because of the nature of his work, Kamel frequently worked with the U.S. or people funded by the U.S. Over the years, Kamel was routinely contacted by the Taliban, who threatened him and his family. In the eyes of the Taliban, working with the U.S. was an act of betrayal. “The callers were quite vivid in their threats and would describe the horrors that would happen to those who worked with Americans.” They discovered Kamel’s address and began tracking his movements and interactions. No place was safe from the Taliban’s wrath. Kamel found out even his daughter was being followed by their members.

When the Taliban fully seized control of Afghanistan in 2021, Kamel knew it would only be a matter of time before his home was raided and his family attacked. Gathering his wife and children, Kamel made the journey to the airport, where he was evacuated by U.S. military forces.

Upon arrival in San Diego, Kamel reached out to Casa Cornelia Law Center for representation. In April 2023, he and his family members were granted asylum. Having been granted refuge in the United States, Kamel plans to move forward and establish a peaceful life for his family. (Casa Cornelia Law Center, Featured News, Kamel: Unwavering in the face of the Taliban – Casa Cornelia Law Center, Accessed 6.26.2023)

*Name has been changed to protect the client’s confidentiality.

Kamel is just one of thousands of individuals Casa Cornelia Law Center (Casa Cornelia) has represented under asylum law over the last 30 years. In 2022, Casa Cornelia responded to 986 asylum seekers fleeing persecution and torture. Under asylum law, an individual who seeks refuge in the United States must meet the definition of refugee, which can be found in section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

This means that the individual must demonstrate a credible fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The person who demonstrates this will then be granted asylum in the United States. In the case of Kamel, he was being persecuted for his political opinion, as he believed the Taliban’s ideology was oppressive and refused to support their regime.

What is challenging about this highly-specialized area of immigration law is that you are expected to be able to explain the traumatic details of what you experienced in a way that will convince the immigration official or judge not only that you have a credible fear of returning to your homeland but also that the fear of persecution is based on one of the above categories. This is no easy feat and requires that the attorney first be able to help the client feel safe enough to begin to tell their story and then be able to embody, to a certain extent, the experience of their client to persuade the immigration official that their client qualifies for relief. The attorneys, especially volunteer attorneys who are working on one of these cases for the first time, are forever changed by the experience. I asked Jesse Imbriano, the Legal Director of Casa Cornelia, what the most impactful thing an asylum client ever said to him was. He shared the following:

“When I consider the most impactful thing an asylum client ever ‘said’ to me, I think about an absence of words when a young man who had just learned he had been granted asylum finally allowed his emotions to flow. Through the inherently traumatic process of telling his story over and over again, he had always remained stoic. Now, knowing he was finally safe, the tears flowed. In that moment, I believe I saw that young man begin to purge the hurt and start to heal.”

Just imagine for a moment a traumatic experience that you endured and how difficult it may be for you to share the specific details of that experience with someone else. Imagine you don’t speak English and have no idea if the family you left back home is safe or still alive. Imagine what it would be like to try to start your life over in a new place without a ready support system to address your housing, financial, and health care needs. Imagine that you had a short window of time to file for relief because the law includes a one-year window to file your case for asylum. What would you need to feel safe to tell your story, and what would be your biggest fear if your request for asylum was not granted? For those seeking asylum, if their case is not granted, they are subject to being returned to their country, where they will be harmed and likely killed because of who they are. This is why we have dedicated our work to providing immigration legal services to help the most vulnerable in our communities, those fleeing persecution and torture like Kamel, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, and abused and abandoned children.

Since 1993, Casa Cornelia Law Center, founded by Sister Ann Durst of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, has worked tirelessly to help asylees from around the world tell their story and navigate the complexity of the immigration process from preparation and filing to representing the client in the hearing, with the hope that they receive the asylum status protection they seek to remain in the United States. We are able to do this with the generous support of volunteer attorneys who provide pro bono legal assistance, community members who provide language support, and an array of community-based agencies that can address the additional needs of housing, shelter, and access to health care and therapy. For more information about Casa Cornelia and to support our work, please visit our website at