On the Importance of Legal Representation at the Asylum Interview
I want to talk about the importance of representation at the asylum interview. I mentioned to you that while I was serving as an asylum officer, lawyers often would not attend the interview with the applicants. I would give a little speech about how they had a right to an attorney at the interview, and in order to proceed with the interview they would have to waive that right.
I never had an applicant choose not to proceed with the interview because their lawyer was not present, but applicants would often ask me whether they needed one and why. I would always explain that the lawyer is restricted in his ability to help the applicant during the interview; ordinarily he cannot ask their own questions, and can only provide a brief closing statement. However, I would always recommend that the applicant have a lawyer present during the interview in order to protect themselves.
Asylum interviews are not recorded; a record is typed by the AO at the interview. Therefore, AO’s can theoretically type whatever they want. I always made an effort to transcribe as exactly as possible, but I’m not certain that other officers are always quite so scrupulous. Therefore, without a lawyer it’s the applicant’s word against the AO’s. A lawyer can help serve as a witness to ensure that what gets put on the record matches what the applicant actually says.
Furthermore, because they have to deal with such a high volume of applicants and such a high volume of fraudulent claims, AO’s make all sorts of judgments about the merits of a case before the applicant even sets foot in the room. Many of these judgments are totally subjective and made on the basis of things like the size of the file, country of origin, name of the law firm, etc. Over time I observed that cases which were represented by a lawyer at the interview tended to testify much more credibly and consistently, and their cases tended to be more meritorious overall. The presence of a lawyer signifies that the lawyer actually cares about the case and believes in it; this cannot help but impact an AO’s decision.
Finally, an asylum interview can be a very scary, confusing and intimidating experience. An experienced lawyer has already accompanied dozens of other applicants to their asylum interviews and knows what to expect. To have a lawyer present can help to alleviate some of the anxiety that inevitably comes with such an interview. When it comes to testifying credibly and consistently, anxiety is the worst. Anything an applicant can do to feel more comfortable during the interview is going to impact the quality of their testimony and hence their chances at obtaining asylum.