Changing the Face of Asylum Law: The Mission of Torchlight Legal

So how would we create a situation where we have a network of people crowdsourcing information, feeding into these really complicated cases, that then allows an attorney — whether it’s a non-profit attorney or a pro-bono attorney — to take on a case that they otherwise wouldn’t have the time for?

Before I sat down with Jennifer Gonzalez and Joseph Wheeler in a small coffee shop in Springville, Utah, I didn’t know the slightest thing about asylum cases in the United States. This isn’t because I have a black heart (though some might claim otherwise) or because I don’t care about human rights violations, I was simply uninformed. I assumed that if somebody came crawling to America’s door, a victim of rape or violence, they would be granted asylum on basic, logical grounds. As it turns out, seeking asylum isn’t that easy.

While serving as a legal fellow for the North Carolina Immigrant Rights Project, Gonzalez came face-to-face with the ugly realities of asylum cases originating from Mexico and Central America. An overwhelming amount of refugees (not immigrants, but refugees) seeking United States protection are either unaware of their eligibility for asylum, or unable to put together the necessary legal work demanded by law. Even when represented by proper legal parties, the time, effort, and knowledge required is extensive and at times, overwhelming.

In 2011, only 1.1% of claims from Mexico were granted refugee status. With the guidelines for asylum cases laid in stone by the 1951 Refugee Convention, proving that someone fits under these guidelines — even in cases that seem incredibly obvious — is still challenging.

This isn’t a question of immigration, but a realization that sending endangered people back to their home country could be partly responsible for filling out mass graves.

“I specialized in asylum cases out of Central America and Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “Folks who were running away from gang violence, cartel targeting, that sort of thing. They’re really complicated cases, taking 200–300 — sometimes more — hours to put together a case.”

It was during this period that Jennifer began to realize what a sticky, complicated mess asylum law truly is. One particular case, concerning a woman fleeing a brutal, near-death experience, resonated particularly.

“She was abducted, raped, shot in the face, and left for dead in a parking lot in Honduras,” Gonzalez said. “She escaped, filed charges with the special investigation unit, goes through trial, but the guy who attacked her was politically and narco-trafficking connected. So even though he qualifies for a 30-life sentence, he gets six months of house arrest. The DAs tell her, ‘You have to leave the country, there’s no way we can protect you.’”

When the government of your country tells you they can’t protect you, it’s time to run like hell and never look back. This is exactly what she did, arriving in the United States seeking asylum and ultimately being represented by Gonzalez and other volunteers. After working on the case for over a year and pouring in countless hours, the deadline came to file official paperwork.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. They had forgotten to translate an entire court document from Spanish to English, usually a week or more worth of translation work. With no time, Gonzalez turned to the people we all turn to in times of need: semi-random acquaintances.

“I scan it, drop it into a Google Doc, and start Facebooking, calling, and texting everybody I know who speaks fairly good Spanish,” Gonzalez said. “Just to get people translating a page or two. Within a few hours, we had a fully-certified and complete translation.”

That defining point in every founder story when the light bulb flicks on? This is it.

From experience gleaned through dealing with the realities of asylum law, and the added idea that crowdsourcing legal work could have legitimate and long-lasting benefits, the idea for Torchlight Legal was born.

“That was the moment that I was like, this is a whole new way of thinking about legal work,” Gonzalez said. “Crowdsourcing works in amazing ways…we don’t really think in terms of how you crowdsource legal work. With asylum, more than half of the work that goes into a case isn’t actually legal. It’s country conditions, interviews with the client, all sorts of information about the geopolitical and cultural setting. You don’t need a law degree to do that. So how would we create a situation where we have a network of people crowdsourcing information, feeding into these really complicated cases, that then allows an attorney — whether it’s a non-profit attorney or a pro-bono attorney — to take on a case that they otherwise wouldn’t have the time for?”

Torchlight Legal is built around that concept, creating a technology platform that allows users to crowdsource legal work relating to asylum claims. Instead of asking an attorney to dedicate 300 hours to a particular case, Torchlight takes care of all the grunt work normally associated with a claim, and in turn allows that same attorney to be prepped in substantially less time (think 10–20 hours). Attorneys willing to spend time on pro bono cases but unwilling to commit enormous chunks of time (also known as the majority of attorneys) are now allowed to do so.

“We have to find a way to bring these very-talented attorneys and these people who are in genuine need, who are entitled to this need under our constitution, and get them together,” Wheeler said. “The brilliance of this technology platform is the way Jen is structuring it around the law. Once these attorneys come in, it not only connects them, it gives them the tools they need to bring in the research. Right now an attorney goes into court and he doesn’t have all the information he needs, or the time to get it, and the learning curve is huge.”

Make no mistake, Torchlight is still in its infant stages — development of the platform is ongoing and funding is still being pursued. But Gonzalez and Wheeler bring not only relevant and varied skillsets, but determination to make changes in an area that both are passionate about.

“Change happens at a systemic level,” Gonzalez said. “We want to disrupt. What I love about this concept and what I’m finding the real traction with Torchlight is, we’re gonna change the status quo, we’re gonna disrupt the system in a way that has exponential potential benefits, both on the humanitarian side and transforming how law works.”

Like the medical world, the legal realm is notoriously slow to embrace change. When lives hang in the balance, it’s hard to move away from what you know, even if logic tells you there is a better way. One of the main battles Torchlight faces is trying to get the legal community to embrace their mix of law and technology. But if they can get lawyers to truly see their vision, the sky’s the limit.

“Instead of just keywords and general legal approaches to archiving information, we actually know the legal structure of what the argument has to look like, all of the different issues you’re gonna have to prove, and then you embed that into the technology,” Gonzalez said. “That allows you to read, scan, and search for documents and pieces in ways that you don’t do in a general database.”

I know that every startup claims they’re trying to change the world. I also know that the vast majority of them are lying. There’s a fairly big difference between personal financial gain (fine in its own right) and solving a problem that can legitimately save lives. Torchlight Legal’s idea of crowdsourcing legal support for refugees fleeing gang and cartel violence can change the world. Building a platform that harnesses the combined work of countless people and allows pro bono attorneys to shape a complex asylum case in a relatively short amount of time would be an enormous win for human rights.

Jennifer Gonzalez and Joseph Wheeler are tired of the way asylum law works. It’s outdated, inefficient, and they’re taking every measure they can to ensure it’s changed.

And that’s a good thing.

“Asylum cases are the epitome of complex legal work,” Wheeler said. “Top attorneys, the guys that get the offices on the top-floor that look out over the skyline, that’s who we want to spend their 20–30 hours to come in and do this. So he comes in and needs all this information. He taps into our database, puts in the parameters of his case, and our algorithm goes out and finds everything he needs. He’s going to walk into that court with his brilliance, and all of the support our platform can give him, and we’re going to change the face of asylum law.”

Published 4/10/2015

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