Editor’s Note: As the nation responds to COVID-19, NYLS alumni and students are sharing their time, talents, and resources to benefit their local communities and the School. In this series, we share their stories.
Danney Salvatierra ’19 was always drawn to immigration law, a field that is unpredictable even in the best of times. But in Salvatierra’s first year of practice, she’s had to confront unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19.
For the past year, Salvatierra has served as a Legal Advocate at African Services Committee (ASC), a multi-service human rights agency dedicated to assisting immigrants, refugees, and asylees. She’s part of the organization’s Legal Department and often collaborates closely with other departments that help clients access housing and medical care.
COVID-19 has amplified what were already difficult conditions for ASC’s clients, including a rapidly changing policy landscape, an overburdened and slow-moving court system, and personal economic and health challenges.
“My clients are in really dire situations,” Salvatierra said.
Finding Creative Solutions
Many of ASC’s clients have endured personal trauma in their home countries. Now, they’re confronting additional language and technology barriers as they navigate a legal system strained by COVID-19.
“We knew we had to get creative during the pandemic,” Salvatierra said. “Our clients still needed to sign lots of documents, and those documents had to be notarized and filed by strict deadlines. We adapted quickly.”
Salvatierra mails hard copy documents to her clients’ homes, taking extra care to walk them through critical instructions and deadlines by phone. She helps clients acclimate to telling their difficult personal stories screen-to-screen instead of face-to-face.
When one client struggled with working together by phone, Salvatierra went to her home for a socially-distanced, outdoor consultation. The client was appreciative.
“We go out of our way to do the very best we can for our clients,” Salvatierra said.
When another client was unable to log in to his online criminal court hearing, Salvatierra—who is not handling the criminal court matter—dropped everything to help him download Zoom and to notify the involved attorneys about his technical issues. As a result, the client, who speaks little English, was able to attend his hearing.
“If a client can’t figure out how to use the technology, the court could easily assume that he simply didn’t show up to his hearing,” she said. “It’s a struggle, and not everyone has an advocate to help them.”
After the federal government suddenly changed its employment rules for asylum seekers, Salvatierra had to explain to clients that they would need to wait a full year, instead of six months, to pursue work.
And Salvatierra’s clients have yet another challenge heightened by the pandemic: They are HIV-positive and therefore at higher risk of complications from COVID. During the spring, two of her clients became sick. Thankfully both recovered.
Salvatierra is proud that ASC has stepped up its outreach efforts during the pandemic. Its services now include delivering food to clients weekly, conducting free COVID testing outside one of its uptown Manhattan offices, and providing remote mental health services, including biweekly counseling for victims of domestic violence. Salvatierra has been involved in the food service and counseling projects.
Staying Connected to NYLS
When Salvatierra, a former student in NYLS’s Asylum Clinic, received a case she needed to refer outside of ASC, she contacted Clinic Director and Professor Claire R. Thomas ’11.
The new case was the sibling of Salvatierra’s client.
“Because the claims are very similar, we’re coordinating our work,” Salvatierra said. “I could have referred the case to a number of other places, but with the clinic, I know how well-handled the case will be, how passionate the students are, and how much they will learn from this case.”
Salvatierra also keeps in close touch with Professor Lenni Benson and numerous NYLS classmates and alumni who now work in the field, including Justyna Gawel ’19, Camille Mackler ’06, and Trisha Sobha ’19.
“We’re all sharing the same fears and struggles,” she said. “NYLS is a family, and we help each other out.”