Swapna sees a future where the United States welcomes individuals who come to our borders fleeing violence. She believes in working alongside asylum seekers to make that vision a reality.
The New Idea
Swapna founded the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) in May 2015 to respond to the mass detention and deportation of asylum-seeking families at the Mexico-U.S. border. ASAP is the first organization to provide asylum seekers with free immigration legal assistance no matter where they are located in the United States.
ASAP’s model has three components: ASAP prevents crises through community education and online community support; ASAP responds to crisis through rapid-response, emergency legal aid; and ASAP eliminates crises through nationwide systemic reform. To date, ASAP has served more than 4,000 asylum seekers in over 40 states.
Recent years have been devastating for asylum-seeking families. The current administration has separated thousands of children from their parents and forced more than 30,000 asylum seekers to “remain in Mexico” while awaiting their trials, leaving them in dangerous conditions and unable to access traditional legal support. Other families have entered the United States intact, but their legal status remains uncertain, and those in rural and isolated communities continue to lack access to critical legal information.
Asylum seekers must navigate complex legal systems, all without access to work, healthcare, or other basic rights. Most families are unable to find lawyers, and fewer than 3% of families without lawyers are successful in securing asylum, with thousands losing their cases despite having strong claims. The administration has also weakened due process rights for asylum seekers across the board, failing to inform asylum seekers of their hearings and issuing removal orders by the thousands. Meanwhile, the press has reported the murder of asylum seekers after their wrongful deportation from the United States.
Under Swapna’s leadership, ASAP has developed and adapted its programming to assist asylum seekers in the face of growing immigration crises. ASAP is a gap-filling organization built to provide asylum seekers in crisis with legal assistance wherever they are. Our model has three components: online community support, emergency legal aid, and nationwide systemic reform.
Online Communities. ASAP uses technology to connect thousands of asylum seekers who would otherwise be geographically isolated, providing them with tools to take control of their cases and advocate for their families. Through ASAP’s private Spanish-language online communities, asylum seekers ask questions of expert attorneys, receive updates about changes in immigration enforcement, and share stories and strategies.
Through June 2019, ASAP has connected over 3,750 asylum seekers, answered more than 15,000 legal questions, and cultivated an active member participation rate of over 70%.
Legal Emergency Room. Through ASAP’s online communities, asylum seekers are able to access legal aid without having to walk into an office. ASAP employs a unique model for lawyering in a crisis – providing short-term legal assistance to our members at a distance to address urgent needs. ASAP works to give asylum seekers access to justice, preparing asylum applications, emergency motions to reopen immigration proceedings, and other legal filings.
Through June 2019, ASAP has provided successful short-term legal assistance to over 1,050 asylum seekers, prevented more than 650 deportations, and worked with asylum-seeking families in over 40 U.S. states.
Systemic Reform. By engaging in mass-communication with thousands of asylum seekers, ASAP is uniquely positioned to uncover patterns of injustice. ASAP pushes for change through complex immigration representation, federal litigation, and legislative advocacy. In response to the current crisis, ASAP has expanded our litigation docket, bringing a federal lawsuit to help formerly separated families access critical immigration records, filing damages claims to hold the government accountable for border abuses, and representing a mother separated from her son and deported to Central America alone.
Through June 2019, ASAP has secured $125,000 for a family in novel damages lawsuit against ICE and CBP, established critical legal precedents in cases overturning removal orders and created related guide for practitioners, and worked with U.S. Rep. Panetta to draft and introduce H.R. 3748, the Providing Justice for Asylum Seekers Act, based on findings from our work.
Swapna comes from a family of immigrants who have had the great privilege of moving back and forth across borders. This freedom has made the lives of Swapna and her brothers possible.
Swapna grew up outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in Computer Science and Mathematics and minor in Economics. A John Harvard Scholar, her senior thesis research was published in Artificial Intelligence. She then conducted technical and empirical research for a number of organizations including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and TERC, an educational research nonprofit.
Swapna shifted to direct services law to work more closely with people. She earned her J.D. from Yale Law School, where she participated in the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, and gained experience providing civil rights and immigration legal services at Brooklyn Defender Services, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the National Immigrant Justice Center, and Ross Silverman LLP.
Swapna founded ASAP along with three of her law school classmates in the spring of 2015. She had traveled to South Texas to volunteer in an immigration detention center that holds thousands of asylum-seeking women and kids. That’s where she met Suny and her seven-year-old son, who were ASAP’s first clients. Swapna represented Suny in her immigration trial, and Suny won her case. Rather than celebrate her win, Suny urged Swapna and her classmates to find a way to represent other families like hers—even if they had to do so from a distance. That’s how ASAP was born.
In recognition of her work, Swapna has received the 2016 Yale Law Women Outstanding Leadership Award, a 2016-2018 Equal Justice Works Emerson fellowship, a 2017-2019 Echoing Green fellowship, and the 2017 J.M.K. Innovation Prize, among other honors. Swapna’s work has also been featured in numerous publications, including The New York Times, the New Yorker, TIME Magazine, The Today Show, and The Chicago Tribune.