12-20-2011By Lori Adams
Managing Attorney, Refugee Protection Program
This week, a report published in the Cardozo Law Review will highlight the crisis in legal representation for immigrants in New York. As noted in yesterday’s New York Times article “In a Study, Judges Express a Bleak View of Lawyers Representing Immigrants,” the report will show that the outcome of an immigration case depends heavily on whether the immigrant has legal representation and whether the immigrant is detained. The report will also show that the quality of legal representation makes an enormous difference in these cases.
Immigration judges who responded to a recent survey as part of this study said that of the lawyers appearing before them, many are poorly prepared, fail to present key evidence, or do not show up at all. Accordingly, immigrants with cases pending in their courtrooms receive “inadequate” legal assistance in 33 percent of cases, and “grossly inadequate” legal assistance in 14 percent of cases. However, it was noted that pro bono counsel, representatives from nonprofit organizations, and law school clinics provide a much higher caliber of legal representation.
The Study Group on Immigrant Representation, led by the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, conducted the research that formed the basis for this report. The group has helped to shine a light on the inadequacy of legal counsel for immigrants in New York and the need for increased pro bono and other legal representation for those who cannot afford to pay for counsel.
With the encouragement of the Katzmann Study Group and generous funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, Human Rights First created a two-year fellowship earlier this year to increase our capacity to provide pro bono legal representation for asylum-seekers in New York City. This will allow us to build on our existing model of providing free high-quality legal representation to asylum-seekers with the dedicated support of pro bono attorneys at their law firms in New York, New Jersey, and the Washington DC areas. Human Rights First is proud to have played such an active role in the Study Group over the years and is grateful for the fellowship, which will make it possible to increase high-quality legal representation of asylum-seekers in our immigration courts. We also applaud Mayor Bloomberg’s recent announcement about the creation of new attorney positions in New York City to provide increased representation of immigrants in our area.
However, we also recognize that there are significant gaps in access to legal counsel for indigent asylum-seekers and other immigrants – not only in New York, but throughout the country, especially for those held in immigration detention. While not a substitute for legal representation, the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) offers basic information to those held in immigration detention, providing them with a better understanding of their legal options and increasing their likelihood of obtaining pro bono counsel. The LOP has received widespread praise for promoting efficiency in immigration court proceedings and judges have lauded the program for better preparing immigrants to identify forms of relief for which they might be eligible. Nevertheless, it is only available to small percentage of immigrants in detention. President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request sought to expand this successful program but Congress has not provided appropriations accordingly. Human Rights First recommends LOP be expanded to all detention centers nationwide.
Judge Katzmann was right to describe the state of immigration representation in our country as a “dire crisis,” and the time has come to address it. The Leon Levy Fellowship and the accompanying project to increase pro bono representation of asylum-seekers in New York will be a model worth replicating in other parts of the country. This will require additional support for the understaffed legal service providers who have the expertise to mentor pro bono attorneys and will also require an increased commitment on the part of the private bar to volunteer in immigration cases.
The U.S. government must also increase support for the LOP, and should allow for court-appointed counsel while also supporting high-quality representation by legal service providers and pro bono counsel. According to the Study Group’s report, “the two greatest impediments to increasing the capacity of existing providers are a lack of funding and a lack of resources to build a qualified core of experienced removal-defense providers.” It’s time to address these problems and increase both the quality and the availability of pro bono counsel for immigrants in this country.