August 31, 2018 Feature

Answering the Call: Pro Bono Lawyers Respond to the Immigration Crisis

By Hannah Hayes

From the beginning of President Trump’s term, wave after wave of executive orders and proposed legislation have put immigrants in legal crisis. Almost immediately, lawyers across the country stepped up to mitigate the chaos. From the “travel ban” to the “zero tolerance” policy at the border, lawyers have come to the aid of an already beleaguered population.

On January 27, 2017, tens of thousands of protesters flocked to airports across the country in response to an executive order imposing a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. With them came thousands of lawyers, some responding to a call for legal help put out by the International Refugee Assistance Project, others deciding on their own to assist detained travelers and their families.

The “airport lawyers” set up clinics and organized systems to handle volunteers and track travelers. “We basically built a law firm on the spot, with a supportive structure around the immigration lawyers so they could do their job and serve family members,” says Julia Wilson, chief executive officer of the California-based nonprofit One Justice, who helped organize the California airport clinics. “It was really inspiring. And it was quite noticeable that the experts running these clinics were primarily women and women of color.”

Wafa Abdin was in Houston, Texas, and in her role as vice president for Immigration and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, she too saw a huge number of pro bono lawyers who wanted to help at the airport. Abdin worked with Houston Volunteer Lawyers (HVL), the pro bono legal aid arm of the Houston Bar Association, because they had a portal where lawyers could sign up as volunteers, allowing them to manage and schedule the 400 plus lawyers who responded. “Even if they couldn’t go to the airport, they could provide advice to families,” says Abdin, who is now executive director of HVL.

According to Abdin, “that was a critical point when we saw an increase in pro bono attorneys interested in representing immigrants.”

In California, One Justice also established a hotline and a volunteer portal. Part of One Justice’s expertise is building networks among nonprofits and pulling together private sector resources to develop systems to provide for the legal needs of low-income people. At the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports, they established a model that was then spread to lawyers at airports across the country.

By the time the crisis subsided, One Justice’s volunteer lawyer email list topped 4,000. “But it was soon clear we’d be needing people in deportation cases,” Wilson says. “So, we sent out an email telling people they should unsubscribe if they weren’t interested.” According to Wilson, perhaps 10 people unsubscribed.

Across the country, legal aid clinics and pro bono organizations continue to see lawyers showing up in immigration clinics, detention centers, or initiatives involving so-called Dreamers (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), or those admitted with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) seeking permanent residency. For immigration lawyers and clinics, this outpouring is heartening.

More Lawyers for More Clients

The increased need in immigrant communities has prompted an increase in pro bono activity. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center runs legal advice and referral clinics to answer questions about immigration. This year saw a 55 percent increase in the number of clients served, according to managing attorney Adrian Gottshall. “There is no way we could have met that need if lawyers hadn’t stepped up,” says Gottshall, who adds that the number of lawyers signing up for clinics is so great that she is now referring them to other organizations.

“Those of us who have been in the immigration or human rights field have been decrying injustices for years,” says Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of Chicago-based Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration. “But the situation is so horrendous— we see grandmothers targeted for enforcement and families being impacted in so many ways—there’s a heightened awareness.”

Harnessing the passion and coordinating the influx of interest and energy have been challenges for legal defense organizations, even those with robust pro bono programs. Many volunteers have no background in immigration law. “Immigration is a very nuanced area, and even if you’re a licensed attorney, if you’re not familiar, it can be very complicated,” says Aimee Korolev, directing attorney at the Immigrants and Language Rights Center at Indiana Legal Services, Inc. (ILS) in Indianapolis. ILS is a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to low-income people throughout Indiana.

Last year, ILS embarked on an initiative to recruit more pro bono lawyers, particularly for its immigration program, focusing on naturalization because of greatly increased need. “I think it’s the political pressure—the only protection against deportation is being a citizen,” Korolev points out. This has worked well as naturalization cases tend to be more straightforward with a shorter timeframe, and lawyers with limited background in immigration law can participate.

Korolev says they are also seeing more removal and detention cases, including those who are supposed to have protection. For example, victims of crime and their families can obtain U visas if they assist law enforcement in the investigation. Because of a backlog, many visas are pending, but these individuals are now threatened with deportation. “Even those who have humanitarian petitions pending are being placed in removal proceedings,” Korolev reports. “We’re seeing more aggressive removal tactics from ICE whereas in the past they wouldn’t go after, say, victims of crime.”

Ultimately, these scenarios bring more people to ILS looking for help.

Needs vs. Skill

Many organizations are training and mentoring new volunteers. The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM) in St. Paul has historically run varied programs around DACA, asylum, family petitions, and other projects. But according to Pro Bono Director Anne Applebaum, over the last year they have been developing more defense programs in response to stepped-up enforcement. With a volunteer base of some 250 lawyers from different practice areas, they offer training and mentoring to non-immigration lawyers, as well as training volunteers in the community to accompany lawyers to detention centers.

Matching the skill of the pro bono lawyer with the need in the community can be tough. Just as ILS focused on naturalization, other organizations capitalize on the skills the pro bono lawyers bring. Rachel Zoghlin is a senior immigration attorney at Grossman Law, LLC, based in Bethesda, Maryland, where she represents individuals in a variety of court and administrative settings. Zoghlin has been mentoring family court practitioners interested in doing pro bono work in immigration. “I’m seeing a lot more interest from family law attorneys who see an overlap with their expertise in family law.”

Many see detention and removal defense as the highest priority, but using pro bono lawyers in this area is difficult as it usually involves travel to detention centers in remote, rural locations. Several organizations are piloting programs that either connect people remotely or divide the work up to take advantage of the volunteers. For example, lawyers doing intake at a detention center may actually work more efficiently if they could outsource paperwork.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council, both based in Washington, D.C., anticipated this need and launched the Immigration Justice Campaign (IJC) with one goal being finding ways to connect pro bono representation to detained immigrants in remote places. “This is very much an initiative that saw the broader legal community standing up for immigrants,” says Karen Lucas, campaign director. “We knew we would see an ongoing onslaught of attacks on due process, and we wanted to respond.”

IJC works with local organizations to connect them with pro bono lawyers who can work remotely to support their representation efforts. A pilot program at a rural location in Dilly, Texas, that houses 2,400 detained women and children uses both lawyers on location and lawyers working remotely. Volunteer lawyers, law students on spring break, and law school clinics come to Dilly for a week at a time to do screening intakes, prepare families for asylum interviews, and argue bond hearings. They partner with pro bono lawyers who work remotely preparing bond packets, coordinating with family members, and otherwise gathering evidence. The team on the ground reviews the material and argues the case in immigration court. By the time the Trump administration announced the Zero Tolerance policy at the border in May, similar projects were up and running in Colorado, Ohio, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Georgia.

Law Firms Step Up

Firms committed to pro bono activity are also stepping up. According to Ellyn Josef, who manages the pro bono initiatives firmwide for Vinson & Elkins LLP in Houston, the number of lawyers working in clinics has more than doubled. “Over the last couple of years, our immigration pro bono program was primarily doing affirmative asylum, but now it’s everything,” Josef notes.

Because clinics tend to the more immediate needs of the immigrant community, many partner organizations turn to them for staff.

Kelly Tautges, director of pro bono and community service at Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis, says they work closely with partner organizations to be able to respond to the current needs. “In this climate, things change very quickly—there’s a lot of uncertainty, and people are trying to be prepared and ready for a rapid response while maintaining the work that’s always been there.”

Tautges points to asylum as an example of the type of work often referred to the private sector. “The same organizations dealing with emerging issues still have to maintain what they’re already doing. We want to be able to take off their plate everything that we can so they have the most resources to respond.”

Tautges says that “rapid response,” a phrase once used primarily in natural disasters, is employed increasingly in discussions about immigration. More organizations are working to put systems in place so the pro bono community can best be utilized. “We try to be involved in those conversations as organizations are the ones that do this every day,” she explains. “So we’re listening to see what they need and organizing around that so we’re meeting the needs of the client.”

While the uncertainty around DACA, TPS, and deportation regularly makes the news, immigration advocates point to administrative changes that fly under the radar. In April 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) suspended the Legal Orientation Program, which advises detained immigrants of their legal rights, only to reverse the decision after much pushback. This followed a DOJ order imposing quotas on immigration judges, who will be penalized if they do not hear 700 cases a year. Critics of the new policy say that many immigration cases can be complex, and this could lead to “treadmill justice.”

In early May, reports on a policy to separate children from their parents resulted in widespread protests at the idea that children had no representation in immigrant court. Although the president signed an order reversing this policy in June, statements threatening due process and other legal issues continue to spark activism in the legal community. “We’ve seen lawyers becoming much more involved because there’s a real genuine concern about upholding the rule of law,” Heartland Alliance’s Mary Meg McCarthy says. “It’s undermining due process, and lawyers see that and respond.”


By Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.