ALBANY 10/8/19— At a time when denials for asylum applications in the U. S. are rising, students and physicians at Albany Medical College are volunteering their time and expertise to help those seeking to legally remain in the country by providing free medical and psychological evaluations.

Such evaluations, experts say, can provide stronger evidence for an asylum seeker’s case.

A student run organization called the Capital District Asylum Collaborative (CDAC) has been providing the evaluations and affidavits since it began in 2015. The evaluations aren’t just for asylum seekers. Immigrants can use them in multiple humanitarian situations, such as battery cases or for U-Visa applications, which are for victims of crimes.

The Legal Project, an Albany-based nonprofit that helps people access protections of the law, will refer their clients to the group, where physicians will run the evaluations and students work as scribes documenting the process.

The group has served people coming from 19 different nations, mainly the Central and South American countries of Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

All of the group’s clients with closed cases — a total of eight — have received legal status. There are 23 other cases pending, and it can sometimes take years for a case to get through immigration court.

The U.S. denied about 65 percent of asylum applications in 2018, the highest percentage in the last 18 years, according to data from nonpartisan TRAC Immigration, based at Syracuse University.

Although, the statistics aren’t in an asylum seeker’s favor, the evaluations can still be helpful, according to Natalie Birch-Higgins, director of immigration services at the Legal Project.

“This is a very important added level of evidence that we can include,” Birch-Higgins said. “It’s even more effective now and even more needed because the immigration (process) is not as understanding.”

Prior to the Albany Medical College program, Birch-Higgins said, the Legal Project’s clients didn’t have free access to such evaluations. As far as she is aware, CDAC is the only group providing the service in the Capital Region.

Dr. Victoria Balkoski, chair of the department of psychiatry and a faculty adviser at the medical school, said working with asylees can be different than working with other clients. Evaluations may take longer and there may be potential for retraumatizing people.

More Information

For questions about evaluations contact the Legal Project at (518) 435-1770 or on the web:

For info about the “Continuing Care” program or other questions about Capital District Asylum Collaborative email:

“It’s difficult for people to go through and to tell their story again,” Balkoski said. “They can be very emotional and it’s hard on them. It’s hard to hear. A lot of these people have suffered a great deal.”

Bill Calawerts, a medical student on the CDAC leadership board, said he can attest to the high level of emotion.

“It’s very humbling because they have told us things they may not have told many people in their lives,” Calawerts said.

He said he and his CDAC peers found themselves wishing they could do more.

“It’s difficult because as providers we’re … we want to be able to help these people, but during the evaluations our job is to be an objective observer,” Calawerts said.

That’s why they have launched a continuing care program, which will work to set up their clients with insurance and connect them with a housing program. Calawerts said the program is still in the early stages.

“It feels good that we’re helping with their applications, but we wanted to take it a step further,” Calawerts said, noting it all started with the evaluations. “We’ve expanded in ways we didn’t believe were possible. It’s been a good journey.”