Many immigrants arrive in America desperate to escape persecution and torture in their home countries. The U.S. grants asylum to immigrants who apply for it within one year of their arrival and can prove that they suffered persecution based on race, religion, political beliefs, nationality, or belonging to a social group. Proving this is the trick, however, and most immigrants who arrive traumatized, suffering from PTSD or depression, don’t have the resources to pay for a medical evaluation to prove their ordeal.
That’s where medical students at the Weill Cornell Medical College step in, providing free medical evaluations to asylum seekers. It’s the first student-run clinic of its kind, a partnership with the non-profit Physicians for Human Rights. As Carmen Stellar, the clinic’s director of organizational operations and a second-year medical student, explains to the New York Daily News, “having a medical affidavit as part of their case triples the likelihood of their being granted asylum.”
Under the direction of professors, the medical students meet with about 60 immigrants a year seeking asylum. They perform examinations, looking for physical or psychological evidence to prove the immigrants’ claims in court. The medical students look for scars from torture, female genital mutilation, or psychological distress, assuring that the evidence matches the immigrant’s story. So far, the clinic has met with 117 asylum seekers from 40 countries. All of the immigrants they’ve worked with who have taken their claims to court—34 so far—have been granted asylum or legal protection.
Alejandro Lopez, in his third year of medical school, is the clinic’s executive director. He recalled the first asylum seeker he met with, a gay man from Nigeria government officials persecuted because of his sexual orientation, even killing his mother. “He received asylum. So that’s extremely satisfying,” Lopez says. “You feel like you actually did something to impact someone’s life.” With programs like this one training compassionate doctors, this is just the first of many lives Lopez and his colleagues will impact.