This sponsored column is by James Montana, Esq., Doran Shemin, Esq. and Laura Lorenzo, Esq., practicing attorneys at Steelyard LLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Arlington, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact James for an appointment.
[Note from James: The name and identifying details of the client, as well as all other individuals, have been changed to protect their respective identities. Other than those changes and our copyedits, this is entirely her story. We are sharing it with you to give our readers an idea of what it is like to apply for asylum. For a sense of the lawyer’s point of view, see Part I.]
My name is Aryana H. I came to the U.S. with a tourist visa from Iran. I had to leave my country because of the government’s anti-democratic practices, which labeled me a terrorism supporter. As part of my work, I visited the United States for conferences.
When I came here, I knew I had the right to apply for asylum because I was working on human rights issues with international nonprofit organizations that work with immigrants, but I did not apply at the first opportunity because it was a radical decision for me.
I knew that if I applied for asylum, I could not see my country anymore, which means I could not see my family and friends. I felt like Tom Hanks’ character in “The Terminal,” stuck in the airport, neither able to go back home nor enter the U.S. I also had some hope that my home country would get better about human rights and democracy, yet it got worse. However, during my last trip back home, it became clear to me that I had to flee.
I decided to “enter” the U.S. with limited English. Everything was new and confusing for me. I searched for a lawyer who could look at my case not just from a lawyer’s perspective but also from a human rights perspective. My housemate, Karen’s friend, was working for a church, through whom a contact — Mrs. Amy — suggested Mr. James C. Montana to my housemate.
I met with Mr. Montana for a consultation. He was so kind and explained all the positive and negative possibilities as well as the process. Mr. Montana asked me to collect all the evidence that shows that I am a human rights activist; I was not involved in any terrorist events, and the Iranian regime took against me. I asked my lawyer in Iran to send copies of the indictment against me and the court records and to write a letter that explains what would happen to me if I returned to Iran. My family had to send me my birth certificate. I searched the internet to collect all news about my works and data about the government’s human rights abuse all over Iran.
All of the evidence was in Farsi. My friend Jasmine helped translate the documents into English. I also wrote my asylum statement in Farsi, and then had it translated into English, which was expensive. I then discussed my statement with Mr. Montana. He helped me to organize and edit it with further translation help. Drafting my statement took two months. Then, I applied for asylum. Three months after that, I received my work permit and Social Security card.
My application was pending for three years before I had an interview. During that time, I tried to keep communication alive with my lawyer. He followed my case very closely and gave me all the details whenever he acted. I knew that they have limited sources and the government policy was not welcome to newcomers. Everything would take a long time.
During these years, I did not have many rights. I had the right to work and live here. I did not have health insurance, I had to pay out-of-state tuition, and I could not visit any other countries. Nothing was clear; all the uncertainty was like a nightmare. That is why it is so important to have a lawyer who has passion, dedication, professionalism and negotiating skills, which I had. In this chaos, I did not want to have any official problems.
There was no government support to help me to pay my living expenses. If I did not bring some money with me, I could die on the street because I was on my own. Luckily, I met with a lovely American woman, who I lived with for a while, and then I started working as a waitress, which I had difficulty doing because I was running businesses in my country, and I was known for my human rights work. Here, I was taking orders from a teenager!
I had Soraya as an interpreter for my interviews, which happened two times. Mr. Montana, the interpreter and I met many times to be prepared for the interviews. My first interviewer was with a kind woman, even though the questions were not. During the interviews, my lawyer stayed with me for four hours and took notes of the questions and answers. After my interview, I did not get the result. I was waiting for the postman every day, but the pandemic got worse, and the office was not functioning.
After another year of waiting, we had a second appointment, which was unusual. The officer was acting as if I am a terrorist. To me, it felt like he was the God in the room! He would ask his questions in an angry voice without looking at me. He interviewed me for three hours, asking the same questions that the previous interviewer asked. After this meeting, I was not able to sleep for a long time because of the stressful experience. America is an immigrant-founded country. Being a new immigrant should not cause that much pain.
Fortunately, after this “adventure,” I was approved as an asylee! Yay! I now have health insurance (Medicaid), and I am eligible for some help from the federal government, such as food stamps and financial aid for school. I continue to work, too.
Once I have had asylum for one year, I can apply for a green card, and four years later, I will be eligible to apply for citizenship.
I wish the best to all refugees. Although applying for asylum is a difficult process, I am happy to be able to start a new life in the United States.
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