Skadden Fellow: Rebecca Heller "Providing Refuge"

In the summer of 2008, following her first year at Yale Law School, Rebecca Heller (’10) began an internship at an Israeli human rights NGO but quickly discovered the organization had very little work for her. Her free time allowed her to read up on the plight of refugees who had fled the war in Iraq. Seeking to make her summer productive, she quit the internship and traveled to Jordan, where she arranged visits with six Iraqi refugee families.

After hearing their stories and learning of their pressing need for legal assistance, Becca returned to Yale and co-founded the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (since renamed the International Refugee Assistance Project), a student group that worked with pro bono attorneys to provide direct legal representation to refugees overseas. Two years later, she received a Skadden Fellowship that enabled her to turn her work for IRAP into a full-time career.

As director of IRAP, Becca sets the direction of the organization, mapping out its big-picture goals and determining, in consultation with the organization’s staff, where IRAP’s involvement can be most useful for its clients and refugees in general. Becca also liaises between IRAP’s board and senior staff to ensure the proper allocation of resources, and builds and maintains relationships with outside stakeholders, including law firms, corporate partners and other nonprofits that support IRAP’s mission.

Becca’s work for IRAP has earned her honors including the Charles Bronfman Prize, an Echoing Green Fellowship and a Gruber Human Rights Fellowship. She is also a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School.

What distinguishes IRAP from other nonprofits that support refugees?

The biggest difference is the model we created to mobilize law students by partnering them with pro bono lawyers. We have chapters at 29 law schools, and we’re coordinating with more than 75 law firms and in-house counsel at eight multinational corporations — a total of 1,200 law students and 800 pro bono lawyers are working on cases. There’s an incredible leveraging effect. We can take a much larger number of cases than if we did them all in-house. We’re also training our student volunteers to advocate for refugees. At this point in time, when there’s so much misinformation and refugee resettlement issues have become so politicized, it’s really important for legal advocates to understand what’s actually going on and how to fight to make it better.

What services does IRAP provide?

We have two main emphases. First, we provide legal aid to refugees, displaced persons and visa applicants — whatever is needed to navigate the resettlement process and get them to safety. We also, based on our experiences providing direct service, advocate for systemic improvements. Our policy team, working with members of Congress and their staff, has produced memos, research and draft language for a series of major bills — we’ve passed eight different pieces of federal legislation since our founding, which have resulted in new visas or additional rights for over 160,000 refugees and displaced persons. Since January, when the first travel ban went into effect, we’ve been engaged in a lot more litigation. We’re currently involved in two cases.

Most of IRAP’s clients have been resettled to the U.S. because historically the U.S. has accepted more refugees through resettlement than all other countries combined. That’s obviously starting to change, so we’re also working with other countries, including Canada, Australia and several in Western Europe, on their refugee processes. Our specific expertise with the legal framework of refugee resettlement has allowed us to build strong relationships with the relevant bodies involved in the process, such as the State Department, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the embassies of several other countries. These relationships allow us to bring issues we identify through our casework directly to the relevant entity and make suggestions for improvements.

What’s an example of the legislation that you’ve successfully supported?

Special programs exist to make it easier for people who are under threat as a result of their U.S. ties, such as Afghan or Iraqi interpreters, to get to the U.S. However, the inefficiency of those programs has often meant that our allies get stranded, at times the program hasn’t provided enough visas or spaces for the number of people who qualified, and in some instances the programs included a sunset provision. We’ve helped focus legislation on making sure the programs don’t expire, allocate additional visas and grant procedural rights to applicants, such as a right to an appeal or to have a lawyer present.

How many individual cases does IRAP handle?

Right now, we’re handling around 600 cases, but each one can involve a number of subcases for different family members. And those are just the cases with direct representation. We also provide legal counseling to thousands of people every year — to date, more than 20,000 individuals. Not everyone needs full legal representation — for example, we also direct people to local organizations that provide social services to refugees, or legal organizations that specialize in immigration law.

What do you see as IRAP’s biggest challenges and opportunities in the near future?

To me the most important thing that’s happening now is our fight to preserve the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Before, our work was really aimed at how to make the program more efficient and fairer. We shared the fundamental goal of the past administration — that we should resettle more refugees — and the administration increased the number of refugees it sought to resettle each year. Now we’re looking at an administration that, through various mechanisms, has tried to freeze the refugee resettlement program, cap the number of refugees at incredibly low levels and stop the travel of individuals from six predominantly Muslim countries. There’s an existential threat to the entire refugee resettlement framework that’s never existed before, and defending the framework is the single most important thing we’re doing. 