What about an Immig-Corps?

Written by Stacy Caplow, Brooklyn Law School

We need a structured program for recent law graduates to provide legal services to poor, unrepresented immigrants while developing skills and knowledge to improve the level of competency of the immigration bar for the long haul.

Words like “crisis,” “disgrace” and “disaster” were used to describe the state of the immigration adjudication system at a newsworthy colloquium earlier this month at which retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens addressed a crowd of several hundred concerned lawyers. The audience for the event, held at Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, included immigration court judges, as well as lawyers from major law firms, small immigration firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and academia. Everyone in attendance shared the view that a system in which individuals charged with even minor crimes are guaranteed a lawyer whereas that same person facing deportation could be removed from family, work and friends without any legal representation is an unfair system indeed.

The plight of many immigrants in the New York state region facing deportation without the assistance of counsel was dramatically revealed in data released at the conference, prepared by the New York Immigration Representation Study, a two-year project of the Katzmann Immigrant Representation Study Group and the Vera Institute of Justice. With the benefit of counsel, a nondetained immigrant represented by a lawyer had a 74% chance of avoiding deportation, whereas a detained immigrant without counsel had only a 3% rate of success. The transfer of huge numbers of individuals from New York to detention facilities in Texas, Louisiana and other faraway states, making it almost impossible to obtain the help of a lawyer, exacerbates this stark contrast.

Those who manage to scrape together money to pay for a lawyer aren’t necessarily better off. Complaints about the quality of representation abound. Immigration judges described the efforts they have to make to compensate for the inadequate preparation and performance of private attorneys. Even worse, many immigrants appear in court with nonlawyers who prey on the vulnerability and desperation of people facing removal.

This crisis exists in a system that has problems at every turn — overburdened judges and insufficient support staff, enormous backlogs resulting in long delays and increasing numbers of detainees. The law itself is very complicated.

There is a way to start to solve this problem. I teach immigration law, a subject that is very appealing to law students who find the laws, policies and issues fascinating and the rewards of helping immigrants enormous. They want to have careers in this field — not mergers and acquisitions, not bankruptcy, not real estate. But there are very few jobs.

So, let’s create a structured program for these energetic law graduates to provide legal services to poor, unrepresented immigrants while developing skills and knowledge to improve the level of competency of the immigration bar for the long haul.

We could call it Immig-Corps. I picture recent law graduates being trained and supervised over a period of two years, going to detention centers, to immigration court, interviewing, counseling and representing individuals facing deportation. They could effectively screen cases to allow people to make informed decisions about their future, decisions that would increase the efficiency of the courts as people with no reason to fight deportation could accept the inevitable, and people who have possible forms of relief could develop their claims with the assistance of counsel.

Identifying a problem is easy. Quantifying it is necessary to convince doubters. Solving the problem is the rub. A solution is in front of our eyes. Let’s find the money. I bet $2 million a year would do the trick. Public interest lawyers are used to skimpy salaries, and this is an investment in the future that benefits everyone. The federal government is unlikely to subsidize this corps. All over the country states are trying to get into the immigration business by enacting stringent and intrusive laws. Maybe New York state or City instead could turn this impulse on its head and fund a corps that benefits its residents. At the conference, representatives of both the New York attorney general and the mayor expressed a commitment to improving the situation. Is there a private funder who believes that great American ideal that we are a “Nation of Immigrants” who will step up?

Everyone benefits — the immigrants, the courts and the bar itself as new, well-trained lawyers enter the field raising the level of competence in general.

Stacy Caplow is a professor of law and director of clinical education at Brooklyn Law School. She is a member of the Katzmann Immigrant Representation Study Group mentioned in this piece.

Reprinted with permission from the May 25, 2011 edition of the The National Law Journal© 2010 ALM media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.