Third-year Penn State Law student Stacie Hunhoff is realizing her dream of helping immigrants obtain desperately needed legal help. Immigration law is notoriously complex and deadline-driven, but the need for legal help far exceeds what many immigrants can afford. Hunhoff helps address that divide as an intern at the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal and education resources to detained populations in Pennsylvania.
After her first year of law school, Hunhoff interned at Hogar Immigrant Services in Falls Church, Va., where she assisted noncitizens who were applying for legal status or petitioning to bring family members to the United States legally. Her work at the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC) last summer and this semester has allowed her to see another side of the immigration process – that from the eyes of detained. Located less than a mile from York County Prison, PIRC is a critical source of legal services to immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security.
With the possibility of imminent deportation awaiting their clients, losing a PIRC case bears tremendous risk, Hunhoff explained. “Last year at Hogar, none of my clients were in removal proceedings, but rather were applying for lawful status in an ‘affirmative’ manner,” Hunhoff said. “At PIRC, my clients are in removal proceedings and have, allegedly, done something to make them deportable from the U.S. As a result, they are applying for relief from that deportation.”
During her time at PIRC, Hunhoff worked on an asylum case for a gay man from the Middle East during which she spent a lot of time researching the conditions for homosexuals in the client’s home country and writing a declaration to the court, explaining when he first realized he was attracted to other men and why he believes he will be harmed if forced to return to his country.
“Having spent a lot of time talking with my client, I learned what it was like to grow up in his home country, especially as a closeted gay man,” Hunhoff said. “I learned a lot about Islam and my client’s home country in the process, including information about honor killings and conflicts between different groups of people and regions within the country. I also learned how badly homosexuals are treated in my client’s country and the risk he faces if he is forced to return to his country. The client’s personal story and fears coupled with my collection of objective information about his home country were important ingredients in building a case argue that asylum should be granted,” Hunhoff said.
Challenges faced by immigrants an uphill battle
“Because there is no equivalent to a public defender in immigration court, unless a noncitizen can afford to hire his own lawyer or can find a lawyer to represent him pro bono, he is forced to face the complex immigration system by himself,” said Hunhoff. “Lawyers spend years trying to understand immigration law. Imagine how difficult it is to be a non-English speaker with little or no education trying to navigate the system on your own. This is made even more difficult if the noncitizen is detained and cannot freely obtain the evidence that would help prove his case,” explained Hunhoff.
“This country is better because of the immigrants that are a part of our society, and I want to be able to help them come to or remain in the United States and be productive members of society,” Hunhoff said. “The best part of my work at PIRC is being able to help even a few people with this process. My asylum client only has one cousin who lives in the U.S. – in Texas – and the rest of his family lives in his home country. Had he not had someone helping him, he would’ve been unable to obtain the research and evidence needed to pursue his asylum claim,” Hunhoff said. Thankfully, with my assistance and the assistance of PIRC, he at least has a fighting chance to win his case.”