Northampton immigration attorneys lauded for pro bono work helping Afghans

  • Dan Berger, a partner at Curran, Berger & Kludt in Northampton, is among 19 lawyers recognized in early June by the American Immigration Lawyers Association with the 2022 Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award for their work on the association’s Afghan Response Task Force. File photo

For the Gazette
Published: 6/30/2022 7:01:47 PM
Modified: 6/30/2022 6:59:14 PM

Two immigration attorneys who practice in Northampton are among a task force of immigration lawyers recently recognized for their pro bono work helping evacuate and relocate some of the 70,000 Afghans who fled Afghanistan in the wake of the United States’ departure from the war last August.

Dan Berger and Alex Kaezem were among 19 lawyers recognized in early June by the American Immigration Lawyers Association with the 2022 Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award for their work on the association’s Afghan Response Task Force. The accolade has, since 1987, commemorated outstanding immigration attorneys providing pro bono representation.

In the disorganized wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, the task force formed with the goal of undertaking a sustained humanitarian effort to provide a number of resettlement-related services.

Nearly a year later, the task force is still going strong, aiding in rapid-response evacuations, “matchmaking” refugees with residential and professional opportunities after they relocate, and training law students and volunteer lawyers to share the task force’s caseload.

Berger, a partner at Curran, Berger & Kludt, said that, while the task force’s immediate action evolved as the military withdrawal progressed, its mission never wavered.

“There was no roadmap to follow when we began — those of us who spoke the language went to military bases and did intake, we recruited volunteers, hosted webinars for college and university groups, we did whatever we could,” he said.

His team collaborated with the Worcester County Bar Association, Northeastern University School of Law, and the Presidents Association, a collective of college and university presidents, to situate refugees and find viable pathways from points of escape to safety.

Processing applications for humanitarian parole takes time that most refugees in politically precarious positions do not have, Berger explained, and forming institutional connections while working to relocate individual women, children, and families fleeing Taliban takeover allowed the task force to expand its pro bono response.

“Referrals to the refugee program are a lengthy process, and [the Biden administration] is still rebuilding that program from the previous [presidential] administration, which really did a lot of damage to it,” Berger explained.

Meanwhile, “[the task force] is filling the vacuum left” by scant or slow refugee processing services.

Kaezem, a staff attorney at the Center for New Americans in Northampton, is also a member of the task force. He speaks Farsi, a mutually intelligible dialect of Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, allowing him to communicate with evacuees on the ground. He was unable to comment on this story.

The task force, led by AILA co-chairs Parastoo Zahedi and Mahsa Khanbabai, focused its efforts on providing humanitarian reprieve and legal assistance to refugees in three scenarios: those who’ve been resettled and still need to file for asylum, any international students considering applying for longer status, and Afghans still searching for evacuation routes from their home country or from neighboring nations.

During the 20-year Afghanistan war, Berger said, the slow trickle of emigrants meant that many Afghans formed familial ties within the U.S. He likened the process of relocating those seeking asylum after the U.S.’s abrupt withdrawal last year to a game of who-knows-who. Using the Signal app, an arcane but secure communication tool, Berger and his team were able to provide around-the-clock legal assistance to evacuees on the ground.

In one instance, a student in the Pioneer Valley whose family belongs to the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic group, a Shia minority in the region, approached the task force with a common set of circumstances: their family was fleeing Afghanistan and facing complications along the way.

But, ethically bound not to advise refugees whether to flee or stay put and strictly limited to providing legal advice, Berger and his team could only tune in to intermittent Signal updates that told the tragic and circuitous story of the family’s deportation from Pakistan, of their long trek back to Kabul in Afghanistan, and of their unwelcome return.

The family was met with an explosion in Afghanistan, and all its older males — brothers, father and grandfather — were rounded up and beaten by the Taliban.

“It’s tiring, and there are studies about immigration lawyers having secondhand trauma, sort of analogizing it to secondhand smoking, where if you’re near someone who’s smoking you can take it in,” Berger reflected.

The AILA has begun instituting mindfulness practices to help alleviate the psychological toll of routine refugee relocation on its lawyers.

Berger added: “When we’re getting real-time updates that ‘the Taliban is knocking on my door,’ we’re in reaction mode most of the time just doing our best to help.”


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