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Asylum Access Fellowship

Ashley Connell ’10

Why did you apply for the Asylum Access/USF fellowship?

I came to USF in part because of its strong offerings in international human rights law. During my time in law school, programs such as the Keta Taylor Colby Death Penalty Project and the Frank C. Newman International Human Rights Clinic fueled my interest in human rights work. However, when it came time to graduate, I noticed a distinct lack in employment opportunities for new lawyers to get their feet wet in this field. When I learned that USF was teaming up with Asylum Access to offer a refugee law fellowship, I jumped at the chance to work for an organization that is providing direct legal services to refugees on three different continents while striving to affect policies on a global scale. I chose to work in Ecuador because of my ongoing interest in Latin America and my desire to improve my Spanish skills so that they may be an asset in my future legal career.

What kind of work are you doing for Asylum Access?

In my first month at Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE), I’ve been astonished by the sheer variety and quantity of cases I’ve seen. Although the majority of our clients have fled the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, I’ve also met with clients from Cuba, Haiti, Nigeria, and other West African countries, all seeking refuge from various forms of persecution and oppression. There are currently an estimated 250,000 refugees living in Ecuador, most of them unregistered and living without legal protection. Using a rights-based approach, we at AAE aim to assist those applying for refugee status to navigate the system, helping them prepare for their first interview, and writing appeals for the many meritorious cases that are initially denied. I have already had the opportunity to write two appeals, one for a Nigerian client, and another for a Cuban, and spent substantial time learning about each of their stories in order to present their cases effectively. It is heart-wrenching work, but also very rewarding to serve clients who have survived so much and are now seeking to rebuild their lives.

As a legal fellow at AAE I also advise and represent refugees regarding their rights to security and police protection, non-exploitative employment, public education, and social services. Through this work I have been learning about Ecuador’s criminal justice system, labor laws, and landlord-tenant law. I am currently working on two gender-based violence cases and am collaborating with another legal fellow to start a prison program in Quito, with the hope of expanding to other parts of the country. So far we have made several visits to Quito’s maximum security prison where we are conducting “Know Your Rights” workshops and identifying potential refugee cases.

How does this position fit into your career goals?

After this year I hope to continue doing human rights work, whether it be providing direct legal services or doing impact litigation and policy work. My experience thus far in the Ecuadorian prison system has reignited my interest in issues pertaining to incarceration and human rights. Ecuador has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world – it recognizes not only the rights of refugees, but also of “Pacha Mama,” or what we might call “Mother Nature.” Yet, as in many countries, the reality on the ground is quite different from the law on paper. I hope to return to the U.S. with an expanded perspective on immigration and issues pertaining to detention, as well as the role that both domestic and international law can play in the fight for human rights. I am very grateful to USF and Asylum Access for providing me with this incredible opportunity to learn and work in this exciting area of law.

Click here to read a description of Ashley Connell's experiences at the 42nd Special Session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Ecuador.