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Clare Cherkasky is threatening to throw in the towel. “The thing is, I don’t enjoy my practice anymore,” says the Falls Church, Va., solo practitioner and immigration specialist. “I hate it.” For Afghan nationals seeking asylum, Cherkasky was the go-to lawyer in Northern Virginia. She kept her rates low, and she rarely lost a case. Her clients were like family. Now, “I have this feeling of impending doom,” says the 20-year law veteran. “I was thinking of doing divorce law. Or maybe I’ll become a chef.” Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she says, “my office was the Afghan place.” These days, she has a well-practiced response to asylum inquiries from prospective Afghan clients: “I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do.” Cherkasky seems all but defeated, worn down by the hurdles to immigration presented by the war on terrorism and what she terms an “anti-immigrant fervor” that seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. The attacks last year sparked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban — the ultra-conservative faction that controlled the country — in late November. A bitter irony for Afghan nationals seeking residency in the United States is that the fall of the Taliban regime essentially eliminated the best argument many of them had for winning asylum. No Taliban in Afghanistan also means no asylum in the United States. For many of her clients, Afghanistan remains a dangerous uninhabitable place even without the Taliban. Their homes and their families are here now. Last year, an elderly client said of Kandahar, her home town, “There is nothing left.” A richly colored carpet with a map of Afghanistan woven into it still hangs on Cherkasky’s office wall. Clients from around Latin America and Africa still crowd the tiny reception room waiting to speak with Cherkasky or her longtime legal assistant, Dolly Campbell. And Flavors restaurant across the street is still serving up hearty portions of soul food. But the heart of Cherkasky’s practice is gone. “It’s pretty depressing,” she says. Afghan nationals who made it out of the country and into Cherkasky’s office before the Taliban fell still had to make their arguments to the immigration judges, but with such an overtly repressive regime in power in Afghanistan, their cases were in some senses half won. One of Cherkasky’s last Afghan clients to win asylum before the Taliban fell was an elderly woman from Kandahar who went before an immigration judge last October. She was a widow and a Shia Muslim, a religious minority under the predominately Sunni Muslim Taliban. “When the Taliban was there … they were so ridiculously bad. Now, it’s hard to believe something like that existed in the world,” says Cherkasky. Just a week after U.S. forces and the Northern Alliance trounced the Taliban, Cherkasky says, it became clear that her Afghan clients’ bids for asylum would be falling on deaf ears. At a hearing in early December, Immigration Judge John Bryant lambasted her and her client, whose family is still in Afghanistan. “He told us [that seeking asylum] was shameful, that my client should go back to Afghanistan and help rebuild his country.” A week earlier, her client might have been granted asylum, she says. “Bam. Just like that, in one week, his case is gone,” Cherkasky says. Another client’s asylum petition was also unceremoniously rejected earlier this year. The client, a leader in the local Shia community, originally had a hearing date in October, but it was postponed when the judge took ill. Cherkasky predicted at the time that if the Taliban should fall before the new hearing, her client would not win. At a February hearing, Immigration Judge Wayne Iskra rejected her client’s petition and forced them to withdraw it altogether. Because the Taliban were out of power, the judge said, asylum is no longer necessary. To seek asylum now, Cherkasky recalls him saying, would be “frivolous.” The client, whose wife is a medical student, will most likely have to leave the country before he can secure a change in his U.S. residency status. Losing those cases was a nasty blow for Cherkasky as well as her clients. “I hadn’t lost in years,” she says, adding that her concern for her clients’ fate in a post-Sept. 11 world keeps her awake at night. In the current climate, Cherkasky says, Afghan nationals seeking refuge in this country are facing immigration proceedings fraught with high walls and dead ends. “As a lawyer, all you deal with are problems. If you can solve them, it’s great. You get satisfaction. When there is no solution, it seems pointless.” Like many immigration lawyers, Cherkasky feels that the deck has been increasingly stacked against immigrants. When the terrorists struck last Sept. 11, Congress was scheduled to vote on a law that would allow aliens to remain in the country while waiting for a final decision on their legal status. Today, few think it will ever be brought to a vote. And, in addition to cutting the number of immigration appeals judges from 23 to 11, new Justice Department regulations allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain people whom immigration judges have ordered released. Currently, the Justice Department is fighting to keep some immigration hearings closed to the public for national security reasons. More pernicious than the regulations, as far as Cherkasky is concerned, is a general anti-immigration fervor that casts all foreign nationals in a suspicious light. “Everyone is a potential terrorist,” she says. Earlier this summer, she worked for 10 days to win release for a client who had been swept up erroneously in a mass arrest of aliens working illegally in local airports. “It’s not that the issues are legally challenging,” she says of the problems her clients are now facing. “They’re just difficult. I have a lot of clients in a terrible limbo right now.” Some attorneys might see an opportunity in these cases. The chances and avenues of winning are narrow, but all the time spent trying to win them adds up to more money. Cherkasky’s clients can’t afford to pay her to seek an impossible goal, however, and she knows that. “With my Afghan clients, I just tell them, ‘Don’t even bother filing.’ They’re just not going to get asylum.” Her client roster is still healthy with clients from Honduras to the Sudan, but the negative atmosphere for immigrants affects them as well. Because everything is more closely scrutinized, the process of gaining legal residency — always painfully long — is even longer now, for example. And for clients from countries with bad terrorism records such as the Sudan, it can be especially arduous. “I don’t think there’s going to be relief for anybody for anything for a long time,” she says. Cherkasky may end up working in a kitchen or in family court. Immigration work is the worst it has been in a decade, she says, although she allows that it likely will get better again some day. The years she has spent working so closely with Afghan nationals were sort of a late professional honeymoon for the veteran attorney who started her career on the Mexico-Texas border in 1983. And she certainly will stay connected in some way to Afghanistan, a nation she has yet to visit. This year, she has been working with a local consulting group on a road-building project in Afghanistan. They’ve requested funding from the Asia Development Bank, but nothing substantive has thus far unfolded. “I like something I can sink my teeth into, and there’s nothing now,” she says. “I feel like I’ve run a good race, and now I should retire.”

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