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On a late October afternoon, the sunlight streaming through the windows is turning Clare Cherkasky’s Falls Church, Va., law office into an oven. Her client, an elderly Afghan woman in a wheelchair with a light scarf covering her gray braids, gestures for her grandson to sit on her lap. Her official age is 65, but she looks at least 80. The woman, an ethnic Tajik and Shi’a Muslim, is a widow from Kandahar who has lost her right leg to cancer. Her family members in Afghanistan are gone, either dead or, like her, driven out by the Taliban. Tomorrow she will ask an immigration officer to grant her asylum, but Cherkasky is worried her client’s r�sum� of misery won’t be enough. “You have to give them a reason to grant you asylum,” she says to the woman and her daughter-in-law, who is translating. “What will you say when they ask you why they should give you asylum?” Cherkasky asks. Through her daughter-in-law, the old woman says, “I forget.” Everyone laughs. Cherkasky puts her face on her desk for a moment. “You can’t say that!” she says, smiling. “When they ask, you can answer from the heart,” she adds, putting her fingertips to her chest. Cherkasky and the daughter-in-law try again. “Why don’t you want to go back to Kandahar?” The old woman nods her head and speaks, sliding her right hand across the palm of her left. Her daughter-in-law translates.”Why would I go to Kandahar? There is nothing left. It is flat now.” Cherkasky, 47, has been winning asylum for her Afghan clients since 1989. For the solo practitioner, as well as her clients, life and work have changed dramatically since Sept. 11. Some clients would rather remain illegal than bring themselves to the attention of the authorities in an asylum petition. Many are worried the current political climate will jeopardize their chances at securing asylum. Others are just going home. More than ever, Cherkasky’s phone rings late into the night and on weekends with clients seeking advice, encouragement and straight talk. Though most of her clients hail from Central America, more than half of her time goes to the Afghan nationals whose asylum and green card petitions require more intensive and time-consuming assistance. Their lives in Afghanistan were destroyed; she is their key to a new life here. She’s spent a portion of every day for the past four weeks at the asylum office on their behalf. “I worry about what’s going to happen.” “I think of them as part of my family,” she says of her clients. As if to prove the point, the daughter-in-law who is serving as a translator asks Cherkasky to attend the baby shower of a friend, who also happens to be a Cherkasky client. “Sooner or later, everyone comes through here,” Cherkasky quips. One client had his asylum application papers ready to go on Sept. 10. All he had to do was come back with photos of his family and wait for an interview. But on Sept. 12 he called. His wife was hysterical, Cherkasky says. She was afraid someone would come after them if they sought asylum — so they chose to remain illegal. In early October, Cherkasky got a call from the frantic family members of another client, Mohammed Arif. They couldn’t find him. Arif is a prominent member of the deposed Afghan government who has lived legally in Virginia for a number of years. He’d been in Rome consulting with leaders from anti-Taliban forces and Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s exiled king. Upon his return to Dulles International Airport, authorities promptly arrested him on bank fraud charges. But it was a case of mistaken identity. After examining surveillance photos of the wanted man, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that they were seeking someone else with the same name and birthday as Arif. But he spent three days in an Arlington, Va., jail before his release. Several of Cherkasky’s clients have responded to the FBI’s call for Afghan language speakers. And the bureau offered jobs to at least two of them. One ended up declining the offer because it would take her away from her husband and child in Northern Virginia, she says. She would have been working in the camps along the Afghan border. Another “is over there right now,” Cherkasky says. “Dangerous stuff.” She declines to give further details. Just two weeks ago, Cherkasky told a client in New York who needed to come see her to hop on a train. “I told him it would be fine. Then I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing to this poor guy,’ and I told him to go see [an immigration attorney] in New York.” Most immigration and asylum specialists are solos or work in small firms, and the virtual network is very strong. After Sept. 11, the e-mail lists that serve as a practitioner forum have been wild with activity as attorneys swap stories of detained or missing clients and advice about shifting regulations and phantom policy directives. On a local level, Cherkasky has been talking to other immigration lawyers about issues that once seemed remote, such as how to deal with the FBI when agents request privileged information, something that happened to one of her colleagues in Falls Church. Ironically, the United States’ current efforts to unseat the Taliban regime may work against some of Cherkasky’s asylum clients. They’re in a race against time. “The only good thing about the Taliban is that it made it easier for my Afghan clients to get asylum,” she says. One such client’s mid-October hearing was canceled because the judge was sick. It was rescheduled for February. “If the Taliban is out of power by then, no asylum,” she says. Born in Appleton, Wis., Cherkasky graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1983 and immediately headed south to the Mexico-Texas border. At Proyecto Liberdad, Cherkasky did asylum work almost exclusively. “Those were the years [when people from Central America] couldn’t get asylum,” she says. They were streaming over the border from El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, trying to escape the chaos at home. After two years, she moved to Brownsville and Texas Rural Legal Aid, where the work was more varied — litigation, civil rights, employment, even family law. Before long, though, her friend William Van Wyck, now an immigration judge in York, Pa., persuaded her to move to Washington and work at his small firm on Mount Pleasant Street in northwest D.C. “As it turned out,” she says, “they couldn’t pay me.” So in 1989 she signed on as director of immigration services at Hogar Hispano, a nonprofit aid organization then under the aegis of the Arlington Diocese. She handled her first Afghan asylum case that year, after a Falls Church immigration consultant referred a client to her. Since then, the number of Afghan clients has expanded exponentially. She estimates that she has represented hundreds of Afghans. It was at Hogar Hispano that Cherkasky met Dolly Campbell. The two have worked together for 11 years now. The sole employee, Campbell is star legal assistant, informal client counselor and patient minder of clients’ children who inevitably escape their parents’ reach and wander out of Cherkasky’s office. Today, their periwinkle-walled digs include a tiny waiting area lined with chairs, pictures from southern Sudan and a poster bearing a photo of Albert Einstein that reads, “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee.” In Cherkasky’s office the wall facing her desk bears a beautiful, intricately tufted rug. It’s a map of Afghanistan with all the regions labeled and described in Arabic script. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese and French. She’s now studying Dari, a Persian dialect similar to Farsi spoken by 65 percent of Afghans. Earlier in the day, Cherkasky met with an Afghan couple who took her to lunch at an Afghan restaurant in Alexandria. The husband, who had been a pharmacist in Afghanistan and now drives a cab, tells the story of his visit to Canada before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was a legal resident of the United States then, but he left without the required travel documents. On his way back, border guards stopped him. “I told them, ‘Check. I’ll wait. It’s OK. I am legal,’ ” he says. One of the guards, he says, “shook his head and told me to sneak through behind a truck.” That would never happen now. In a post-Sept. 11 world, a gaffe like forgetting one’s travel papers almost certainly would result in detention. Back at the office is a situation even Cherkasky has never encountered: A single mother wants to bring the father of her child over from Pakistan. But her father, who brought her over as his dependent and can best verify that his daughter and the young man are engaged, cannot be reached. In failing health, he had wanted to visit Afghanistan one last time. Now he’s stuck there. Cherkasky suggests that the young man seek a visitor’s visa in order to accompany the sickly father on his return to the United States. The following morning, the grandmother from Kandahar does well in her asylum interview. “We got a nice [immigration] officer,” Cherkasky says. “We were lucky.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service could issue a decision on the petition as early as mid-November. Since Sept. 11, everything has slowed down at the INS offices, Cherkasky says. She mentions a client whose case was filed on May 3. Although he has been questioned numerous times, INS officials have just filed for a continuance so that they can investigate his travel patterns again. The Bush administration’s promised changes to immigration regulations are themselves promises of more worries for Cherkasky’s clients, and fewer breaks. There will be no more guards turning a blind eye at the Canadian border. “As one of the immigration judges said to me when I was moaning about something, ‘That’s the way it goes, the dolphins get taken in with the sharks,’ ” Cherkasky recalls. “ Of course, it wasn’t him being taken in with the net.”

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