Conversations: An Interview with Becca Heller
Feb. 23, 2015
By Qingliu (Mary) Yang, Assistant Solicitations Editor
Editor’s Note: Becca Heller is the director and co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and a visiting clinical lecturer in law at Yale Law School. She founded IRAP as a student at Yale Law School in 2008, after visiting Jordan and considering the ways in which law students could provide assistance with refugee resettlement. Since its founding, IRAP has grown rapidly and now links law students with local attorneys to provide refugee resettlement from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Becca has won numerous awards for her work with IRAP, including a Skadden Fellowship, an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Gruber Human Rights Fellowship, a Dartmouth College Martin Luther King Jr. Emerging Leader in Social Justice Award, and a recognition by the Christian Science Monitor as a “30 under 30” change-maker. She also serves as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations
Columbia Journal of Transnational Law Bulletin: You founded the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) as a law student in 2008. What was your motivation? What were some of the major challenges you faced?
Becca Heller: A group of us at Yale Law School founded IRAP in the fall of 2008 as a student extracurricular organization. I had some background in asylum work and, during the summer of 2008, had ended up in Jordan, where I had the opportunity to meet with six Iraqi refugee families. It was not my intent to start an organization to assist them. I merely felt that if I were an Iraqi refugee, I might be interested in talking to an American citizen about how my life was going. I expected each of the families to be facing difficult humanitarian circumstances, but what I did not expect is that every single family, independently, identified their primary need as legal. None of them could go back to Iraq because they would face persecution or death, but neither could they remain in Jordan, where it was illegal for them to work and they could be deported at any time. They felt their only hope was the international refugee resettlement process, but none of them understood how to navigate it or even whether or not their cases had been accepted or rejected. This seemed like something law students could assist with.
A major challenge from the beginning has been conceptualizing what legal representation for refugees ought to look like. Asylum seekers and refugees have the same legal burden (to prove that they cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution based on a protected characteristic). The difference is that an asylum seeker is already in a destination country (such as the United States) trying to stay, and a refugee is outside and trying to get in. We kept looking for a model of what it meant to provide legal representation to refugees in the resettlement process, until we ultimately realized that no one had ever provided organized legal aid in that context. It’s also a process that is totally devoid of due process of law. Refugees are one of the only immigrant populations that is affirmatively barred from having counsel present at interviews. When they are rejected, they get very little information as to the basis for their rejection. And there is no formal appeals process. Figuring out the best way for lawyers and law students to assist people in this context, particularly people whose lives are on the line throughout the process, has been an incredible challenge.
Bulletin: IRAP continues to make law student involvement a priority. How does integrating law students in IRAP’s work further IRAP’s goals or enhance the larger movement of protecting refugee rights domestically and abroad?
BH: For the first two years of our existence, IRAP was entirely law-student-driven and law-student-run. When I graduated, in May of 2010, we had 10 chapters throughout the United States. When I started working on IRAP full time, we became part of the Urban Justice Center in October of 2010, and we only had two staff people. So the role that law students played was crucial in providing assistance to as many refugees as possible. Over time, as our mission expanded and our staff grew, our Board of Advisors had time to reflect on the relationship of law student volunteers to IRAP’s mission. Namely, was our main mission to provide assistance to refugees and law students were a convenient means to that end? Or was working with and serving law students in and of itself an essential part of our mission?
After much discussion, we decided on the latter: that the pedagogical and leadership development aspects of IRAP were as central to our mission as serving our clients. This is why we have put so much effort, not just into training law students to represent their clients, but organizing an annual National Conference and bringing over 70 law students from 15 law schools to the Middle East every year to experience refugee legal aid in the field. This aspect of our work is incredibly important to me personally because it meant a lot to me in law school to have the opportunity to do really meaningful, hands on work, and I want that to be available to other students.
I also love the teaching and training aspects of my job. I find it inspiring to work with law students, and explore what it means to be a zealous advocate for someone whose life is on the line 6,000 miles away. On a larger strategic level, part of IRAP’s mission is to make legal aid widely available for refugees. Working with hundreds of law students every year is a great way to build up a movement of future lawyers who, whether full time or as part of their pro bono work at a firm, can be fierce advocates for the human rights of refugees.
Bulletin: IRAP has received significant attention this year from news outlets, including a mention on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in a segment entitled “Translators.” How has this attention impacted IRAP’s work?
BH: For us, media attention is a means to an end. Coverage of individual cases is a way to try to get those cases to move more quickly through the system, or to exert influence over government agencies that otherwise might not pay close enough attention to the details of a complex case. Coverage of the broader issues is a way to move policies forward. There has been a lot of coverage of the work of interpreters in particular, whose lives are at risk because of their work for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not a coincidence that this is also an area in which we have had great policy success. In the past 14 months, Congress has passed four different pieces of legislation providing protections for tens of thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and Afghans.
There is obviously a desire in the U.S. for the Iraq and Afghan wars to be “over” and to move on from the legacy of those wars. Media attention helps remind policy-makers, funders, and the general public that for Iraqis and Afghans in mortal danger, “moving on” is an impossibility.
Bulletin: How has the rise of ISIS affected the situation of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the Middle East?
BH: Catastrophically. The Islamic State has systematically targeted women, LGBTI individuals and religious and ethnic minorities for mass persecution in the form of rape, torture, and killing. The Syrian Civil War had already displaced over a million Syrian refugees to neighboring countries; many of these people fled to Iraq. Conversely, the violence in Iraq from 2006 through 2010 displaced an estimated one million Iraqis who fled to Syria. Prior to June of 2014, when Mosul fell to the Islamic State, many Iraqi and Syrian refugees would flee back and forth across the Iraq-Syria border. That border is now largely controlled by ISIS.
During the summer of 2014 alone, an estimated one million Iraqis were displaced by the Islamic State. This exacerbated the saturation of neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey with refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Last month, Lebanon officially closed its border to Syrian refugees. At the time the border closed, one in four people living in Lebanon was a Syrian refugee. Jordan similarly closed its borders and Turkey is one of the last remaining options, although flight to Turkey is dangerous and often prohibitively expensive.
The result is that while the violence against targeted groups is increasing, and more and more people are forced to flee their hometowns, there is literally nowhere left for them to go.
Bulletin: Many of IRAP’s Direct Access Program applications are stalled because of the suspension of Iraq-based interviews (a consequence of continuing conflict in the region). What impact has this had on your cases and clients? What needs to happen before interviews may start up again?
BH: The Direct Access Program, which was shut down in June of 2014 as part of the evacuation of “non-essential personnel” from Embassy Baghdad, was actually restarted in January of 2015, albeit with only 10 people working on it. This has created an incredible backlog of applications. We received estimates that, at the time the program shut down last June, there were approximately 40,000 Iraqis awaiting in-country processing. Since then, applications to the program have surged to nearly 2,000 per month. This means a wait time for processing of multiple years. Even with the program resumed, because of the low number of personnel running the program, a little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that someone who applies for the Direct Access Program today may end up waiting until 2019 for her application to be processed.
The tragedy of this is that it is occurring against the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic State. As Iraq gets more dangerous and more people are displaced from their homes and forced into hiding, America’s ability to process their refugee applications is actually slowing down. This has taken an enormous toll on our clients, a number of whom have been targeted, kidnapped, or killed by ISIS. It also forces families to make impossible decisions. For example, adult children may find that their applications are proved while their elderly parents are still waiting. Once an application is approved, the window to travel only lasts so long. The parents may end up waiting years for their applications to be processed, and adult children must make a choice between being around to care for their parents or seeing to their own safety.
IRAP is currently advocating for the U.S. to expand Direct Access Program application processing to the Consulates in Erbil and Basrah. Part of the reason so few people have been reassigned to the program is a lack of secure space at Embassy Baghdad. The Consulates in Erbil and Basrah have the space to conduct additional interviews, and there is no legal reason why refugees could not be processed out of those consulates. This would have the added benefit of not forcing refugees who fled to the Erbil region to escape ISIS to make the dangerous journey to Baghdad for their refugee interviews.
Bulletin: What are your thoughts on the trajectory of the U.S. Direct Access Programs and the SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) programs (Iraq and Afghanistan) for refugees in the Middle East? How does this relate to recent legislative changes in Afghan SIV rules? Are there certain policy initiatives that IRAP is supporting?
BH: The Direct Access Program must be expanded and additional personnel assigned to clear the backlog. This could be done either by expanding processing to other consulates, as outlined above, or by allowing refugee applicants to conduct their interviews via videoconference. IRAP is advocating around both of these initiatives.
The Special Immigrant Visa Program in Iraq “sunsetted” on September 30, 2014. IRAP worked with members of Congress to ensure that this was an application deadline rather than a visa issuance deadline. As a result, any Iraqi interpreter who managed to submit an application prior to the end of the fiscal year can still have their visa application processed. We would like to see the program move more quickly. There are still approximately 1,800 Iraqi visa applicants awaiting visa issuance. We have been doing advocacy around this and also looking at options for litigation. If the United States continues to send additional troops to Iraq, regardless of what role our troops play, it is likely that we will end up hiring large numbers of interpreters again. If that happens, it would be appropriate for the U.S. to reopen the Iraqi SIV program.
In the case of the Afghan SIV program, we are mainly focused on ensuring that Congress allocates a sufficient number of visas to meet the demand. Although Congress initially authorized 7,500 visas for Afghan interpreters to be issued between 2009 and 2014, fewer than 2,000 were actually given out and the remainder expired. We have worked with Congress to allocate 5,000 additional visas over the past year, but this will not be enough for the 10,000 or so interpreters who have applied to the program. We are also hoping to see an expansion in eligibility for the program to include family members at risk because of the primary applicant’s service to the U.S. In Iraq, if your parents, siblings or adult children face a direct threat because of your work with the U.S. military, they can apply to come to the U.S. through the Direct Access Program. In Afghanistan, no such program exists, although family members are often the first people targeted by Taliban insurgents (since they do not live on the bases and thus have no protection). We would like our Afghan allies not to be forced to choose between their own safety and the safety of their families.
Bulletin: IRAP has expanded tremendously in the last few years. Will the scope of IRAP’s work change in the future?
BH: Our goal is eventually to scale our model to provide legal aid for refugees around the world. We realized several years ago that we had the capacity to expand beyond Iraqis, but felt that it made sense to remain focused on the Middle East for several reasons. First, it was where we had the most field experience, linguistic, cultural, and historical expertise. Second, it was right at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, and Syrian refugees (one of the fastest growing refugee populations in the world) were fleeing to countries where IRAP was already operating, speaking a language that IRAP staff already spoke. We also work with a number of North African and Central Asian refugees who have fled to the Middle East.
It is important to us to grow in a way that is sustainable, and allows us to continue to provide the highest quality legal services to our clients. We are successful in a huge percentage of our cases, and we do not want to sacrifice quality for quantity. At the same time, because our model utilizes pro bono assistance from students and private lawyers, we have been able to expand much faster than if we took all of our cases in house like a traditional legal aid organization. We will continue to balance the incredible global need for refugee legal assistance with a desire to grow responsibly and sustainably and for the time being, that means focusing on the Middle East.
Bulletin: Do you have advice for law students or young lawyers interested in promoting refugee rights or in building a non-profit organization from the ground up?
BH: My advice to law students and young lawyers interested in promoting refugee rights is DO IT! There are literally millions of people who need your assistance, and it is an exciting and underserved field. Send us an email and we will find something impactful and interesting for you to do.
Think carefully about what you want the content of your work to look like. I was not prepared (perhaps naively) for how much of my time would be spent on non-legal activities like fundraising, budgeting, and personnel management. I love my job and I love our team and I never doubt that what we are doing is important, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have days where I wished I could just spend the day representing clients.
That said, if you come across a problem, an injustice or an opportunity, and you look around and no one seems to be doing anything about it, the world needs you and you should step up. Start by talking to everyone who is running something and doing a good job about how they got started. Develop a network of mentors and experts whose advice you can ask for (repeatedly) when you come across a new issue or challenge. Learn when to be patient and when to be impatient. Never stop soliciting feedback or critically examining your model to see where and how it can be improved. Never assume you have figured it all out. Always send thank you notes.
Interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.