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Asylum seekers finding much-needed help from med students

In order to be granted asylum here in the United States, a foreign national must satisfy a multitude of rather exacting standards.

For instance, in addition to filing a comprehensive asylum petition within one year of their arrival, the person must also be able to demonstrate that they cannot return to their native country either because they have suffered persecution or fear they will suffer persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

In an attempt to help demonstrate that they have indeed suffered persecution or even torture, many asylum seekers will seek out a medical evaluation from licensed medical professionals. However, they may soon find this to be a somewhat difficult proposition due to limited resources.

Fortunately, Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York has come up with a rather novel solution that allows asylum seekers to get the necessary assistance and medical students to get the necessary training.

Back in 2010, medical students and professors at Weill Cornell joined forces with the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights to launch the first-of-its-kind pro-bono asylum clinic called the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights.

Here, either area law schools or Physicians for Human Rights refers clients with strong asylum cases, who they believe would benefit immensely from a medical exam, to the clinic for either a physical or psychiatric evaluation.

The actual evaluation is then performed in the school's clinical skill center by one of the professors/clinic directors with a medical student looking on. While the medical student doesn't actually take part in the exam, they do ask questions, take notes, fill out a legal affidavit and, most importantly, help the professor identify evidence to support the asylum seeker's claim of persecution.

Thus far, the program has proven to be a great success with 100 percent of clients who have thus far been to court being granted asylum or some other type of legal protection.

"Having a medical affidavit as part of their case triples the likelihood of their being granted asylum," said one a second-year medical student involved with the clinic.

It remains to be seen if this idea will catch on among more medical schools around the country. In fact, the University of Michigan and Brown University have already opened their own clinics.

In the meantime, those in need of assistance with asylum petitions or adjustment to lawful permanent resident status should strongly consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about their options and their rights.

Source: The New York Daily News, "Student-run group at Weill Cornell Medical College is helping immigrant asylum seekers," Erica Pearson, April 1, 2014; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "Asylum," April 2014

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